Ritalin is a prescription stimulant medication, with the active ingredient methylphenidate, which is designed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It may be prescribed off-label for other conditions like narcolepsy or weight loss, but this is rare.

Methylphenidate was first synthesized in 1944, and it was prescribed throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s to treat chronic fatigue, depression, psychosis associated with depression, narcolepsy, and side effects such as sleepiness or drowsiness associated with other medications like Valium. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, prescription use of Ritalin grew. Between 1991 and 1999, sales of Ritalin spiked 500 percent in the United States, but most of those prescriptions went to individuals, mostly children, who were diagnosed with ADHD.

Methylphenidate works on the brain by increasing the activity of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with many important tasks including feeling happy or feeling pleasure, which triggers the reward system to reinforce certain behaviors. For people with ADHD, the brain has less available dopamine, so increasing the brain’s production and neurons’ ability to use this important neurotransmitter improves symptoms of lack of attention and hyperactivity.

In people who do not have ADHD, stimulating the reward center can lead to abuse. Drugs that release these neurotransmitters increase the risk of developing a tolerance for the medication because the brain will produce less dopamine in response to the same dose of the drug over time.

In people who do not have ADHD, stimulating the reward center can lead to abuse. Drugs that release these neurotransmitters increase the risk of developing a tolerance for the medication because the brain will produce less dopamine in response to the same dose of the drug over time.

Methylphenidate Tolerance

Can you build a tolerance to Ritalin? Many people report that they have developed methylphenidate tolerance after taking the prescribed doses for a few months. You may wonder how fast does Ritalin tolerance build, and the answer may be it depends on how much of it you are taking or how long you or your child has been taking it. If it is prescribed for you, it is always recommended to take the lowest possible dose prescribed. If you feel you are not experiencing the same effects as when you first started to take it, it is best to call your doctor about possibly increasing the dose if you feel that Ritalin is not working anymore.

If Ritalin is being misused or abused for recreational purposes, methylphenidate tolerance will develop where the person abusing it will likely take more of the drug to feel the same effects as before. Overdose on this prescription stimulant may result in overdose.

Three Types of Chemical Tolerance

There are three different types of tolerance to prescription stimulants and other medications which to know:

  • General tolerance: When you take a medication at the same dosage for a long time
  • Acute tolerance: When your system becomes tolerant to the drug very rapidly, such as cocaine
  • Chronic tolerance: When your system becomes used to a medication or drug taken for a few weeks. 

Any one of the above-mentioned types of tolerance may cause you to take more Ritalin. This might be a good time to consider a Ritalin tolerance break. 

Signs of Ritalin Abuse and Tolerance

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines tolerance as a condition in which a measured dose of a substance — a 5 mg (milligram) prescription opioid painkiller, a 5-ounce glass of wine, or a line of cocaine, for example – no longer triggers the same physical and mental effects it once did. You may not get as much pain relief, you may not feel as happy, you may feel adverse effects like mood swings, or you may not get as high.

People who misuse or abuse drugs are more likely to become tolerant of them because they do not take medications as prescribed. They may up their dose without speaking to a doctor first, or they may begin to consume more of the drug recreationally to achieve the initial sensations they once did.

People who take prescription medications can also become tolerant of the substance. If you do not receive the same benefits from your prescription drug as you did at first, speak with your doctor. You may need to change doses, take some time off from the medication to adjust, or switch to a new medication. This is an important conversation to have with the doctor who oversees your care. Taking more of your prescription drug without talking about the issue with your doctor is a form of misuse.

Ritalin abuse may lead to side effects, especially at high doses that have not been prescribed. High-dose side effects include the following:

  • Intense excitement
  • Exhilaration
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety or paranoia
  • Uncontrollable physical twitches
  • Dilation of the pupils
  • Confusion or delirium
  • Repetitive movements or performing meaningless tasks
  • Hallucinations, including the feeling of bugs crawling on or under the skin
  • High blood pressure and rapid pulse
  • Dry mouth
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fever or sweating
  • Seizures

Methylphenidate Abuse Leads to Tolerance Faster than Taking it as Prescribed

The United States consumed about 69 percent of the global Ritalin supply in 2012. The same year, the Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey found that 0.7 percent of eighth-grade students, 1.9 percent of 10th-grade students, and 2.6 percent of 12th-grade students reported abusing Ritalin for nonmedical reasons, often as study drugs or performance enhancers.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) for 2019 reported that 430,000 individuals aged 12 to 17 abused prescription stimulants, 2.6 million people aged 18 to 25 engaged in prescription stimulant abuse, and 2.5 million people over age 26 did the same.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) for 2011 reported that 4.9 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 25 used Ritalin without a prescription or for nonmedical reasons at least once in their lifetimes.

While many stimulants, like cocaine and meth, have both medical uses and clandestine manufacturers, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reports that there is no illegal production of methylphenidate, leading to uncontrolled doses on the black market. Essentially, all Ritalin abuse involves diversion of the drug. A person with ADHD gives or sells some pills to a friend, someone steals the medication from a person with a prescription, a doctor writes a fake prescription, or a person reports false symptoms to get a prescription for the drug.

Ritalin is listed as Schedule II, according to the DEA, so it has important medical uses. People who do not have a condition that benefits from the medication will feel high, or euphoric, and may become addicted to the substance.

Whether you take Ritalin as prescribed, or struggle with Ritalin abuse, you may develop a tolerance for the substance. If you struggle with Ritalin addiction, finding an evidence-based detox program is crucial. If you take this medicine as prescribed, your doctor may have you take less to reduce your tolerance, stop taking it for a short time, or switch to a different medication that will be more effective.

Work with Your Doctor on Taking a Ritalin Break if Necessary

You should report tolerance to your doctor. When you feel like your dose of Ritalin isn’t working well anymore, this may be a sign of tolerance. Your doctor can diagnose whether you have developed a physical tolerance for the medication or not.

Developing tolerance for a medication you take as prescribed is normal if you take the substance for months or years. Ritalin controls ADHD symptoms well for many people, but it may not work forever. Your doctor will know how to proceed in treating this behavioral condition.

In some instances, your doctor may recommend that you take less Ritalin or take a break from the drug altogether for a week to a month. This helps your body adjust to not taking the drug anymore, and your brain can recalibrate its own chemistry. You may experience some negative symptoms, but this does not mean you have become addicted to a drug that you need for routine medical treatment.

The Benefits of Taking a Break from Ritalin Include:

  • If you have several side effects, like low appetite; these will ease up
  • You can see if behavioral treatments work alone
  • Your doctor can see if your symptoms are changing and require a different approach
  • It could boost child growth. A lot of children go through growth delays, and some ADHD medicines can also slow down a child’s growth. If a break is taken from methylphenidate, the child’s growth may begin again.

However, there are Some Downsides Like:

  • Your symptoms may temporarily get worse
  • You need to be extra attentive about symptoms
  • It can take some time for a new prescription to take effect
  • Children and teens with ADHD are at risk of trying risky activities, like drinking, smoking, or driving a car when their symptoms peak.
  • Withdrawal symptoms might be experienced if use is stopped. Some of these are extreme fatigue and depression. Be on alert for them.

It is always best to consult with the doctor before stopping Ritalin.

NIDA notes that tolerance is often part of an addiction, but becoming tolerant of a substance is not the same as being addicted to a drug. If you have not been prescribed Ritalin to treat ADHD or to use off-label for a specific reason, then you are abusing this drug, and your physical and mental health is at risk. Unfortunately, many people in the U.S. abuse this drug after they are initially exposed to it in school.

Ritalin is Not a Performance Enhancer

The term “study drug” refers to stimulant substances that are abused to increase focus and concentration during cram sessions before exams or to keep one awake all night to study and write papers. High school and college students notoriously abuse these drugs, mistakenly thinking they enhance academic performance.

The first generation of children exposed to Ritalin when their peers with ADHD began to take it assumed that these medications would improve performance for everyone. The compulsive habits formed around taking Ritalin and other ADHD prescription drugs have led to a generation of young adults who still abuse these substances in the workforce.

Evidence-based detox, followed by behavioral treatments in a rehabilitation program, are the core components of ending Ritalin addiction. If you have a tolerance for Ritalin and don’t use it for medical reasons, it’s a sign that you need help.

Ritalin Addiction Treatment

Ritalin is generally a safe medication, but when it is misused or abused, it can lead to addiction. If you are taking Ritalin for purposes other than ADHD, you are abusing the drug and would benefit from professional addiction treatment at an accredited substance abuse center, such as Arete Recovery.

Medical detox, followed by inpatient or outpatient treatment, would be a wise option. Evidence-based behavioral therapies, educational sessions, and alternative therapeutic approaches can help you learn why you started abusing prescription stimulants, change incorrect or negative thoughts that lead to undesirable behavior, and practice making changes in your life to avoid abusing substances in the future. If you have a tolerance for Ritalin and don’t use it for medical reasons, it’s a sign that you need help.

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