Methamphetamine is a powerful stimulant drug that has highly addictive properties and can lead to severe damage for the individuals and communities affected by its use. Because of its strong effects on brain chemistry and body function, it can also be very difficult to stop using, and its abuse or addiction is equally difficult to treat.
Nevertheless, there are options for people who are struggling with meth use. While there is certainly a challenge in treating meth addiction, avoiding relapse, and overcoming the effects of the drug, comprehensive care can help individuals meet these challenges head on and increase the chances of complete recovery from meth abuse. Certainly, research-based treatment options are worth pursuing to avoid or minimize the damage this drug can cause.
The Lure of Methamphetamine
Like many drugs of abuse, methamphetamine was originally produced as a potential medicine, and it has been used to help people with various health conditions, including
- Sleep disorders such as narcolepsy
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Serious weight control issues
In fact, a form of meth, as well as a weaker version of a similar stimulant called amphetamine, is still used for ADHD treatment in a limited manner.
Despite its medical uses, meth quickly proved to be highly problematic due to its addictive qualities and to health issues that result from long-term use of the drug. Meth produces a potent and long-lasting high, as described by Medical News Today, and it is highly sought out by people who want a stimulant high.
People Who Use Meth
Meth is attractive to people for more than just the euphoria it produces. Along with this, as described by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, it has a reputation for enhancing:
- Weight loss
- Release of inhibition
- A feeling of invincibility
- Increased sexual pleasure and risk-taking
As a result of this reputation, more than 14 million people have tried meth in their lifetimes as of the 2015 National Survey on Drug Abuse and Health. Over 1.7 million used the drug that year, and 872,000 had a substance use disorder related to the drug.
From Prescription Stimulants to Meth
For some people, legitimate medical use of ADHD medications can lead them on a path to methamphetamine use. In particular, sometimes people use ADHD medications for off-label uses, like as a study aid. Abusing these medications can lead to dependence on the drugs.
UC Davis Health reports that, sometimes, people who have developed dependence on a milder form of stimulant decide to try meth for a variety of reasons, such as a desire to experience the stronger, longer-lasting high, or as an alternative for a prescription that has ended or is too expensive.
How to Recognize Meth Abuse
Signs and symptoms of meth abuse, described by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, include physical, psychological, and behavioral factors.
- “Meth mouth,” the result of extreme tooth damage and decay
- Open sores on the skin that seem unable to heal
- Scarring and damage to the skin and face
- Excessive weight loss
- Withdrawal symptoms if the drug is stopped
- Anxiety and paranoia
- Inability to stop using the drug or to control the amount, duration, and frequency of use
- Changes in hygiene
- Disruption of relationships
- Loss of interest in prior activities or social circles
- Cravings for the drug
The occurrence of multiple signs and symptoms could indicate that a more severe problem of abuse or addiction is present.
Dangerous Health Effects of Meth Use: Chronic Overdose
As demonstrated by the symptoms and signs of meth use, even short-term use of the drug can cause serious physical and mental health effects. In the long-term, use of meth can result in a condition called chronic overdose, as described by the National Library of Medicine’s Medline Plus, which can cause permanent damage to various organ systems and body function. Unlike acute overdose, this is the result of cumulative, long-term use of the drug.
Chronic meth overdose can result in extreme versions of the health issues described above that, over time, can become crippling and even life-threatening, such as:
- Severe tooth damage and gum disease
- Heart disease
- Circulatory system problems
- Open sores on the body that will not heal, with permanent scarring
- Repeated infections and illnesses
- Extreme weight loss
Nevertheless, it is less likely for chronic, long-term meth use at high doses to result in death than for acute overdose in people who haven’t used it before.
Acute Meth Overdose and Consequences
As described by the University of Arizona MethOIDE, the acute meth overdose is the kind most people are accustomed to hearing about. This involves one-time use of an amount of the drug, either by accident or on purpose, that is too much for the body to handle. This type of overdose can result in acute physical responses that are life-threatening, including:
- Agitation and panic
- Chest pain
- Heart attack, heart failure, or stroke
- Dangerously high body temperature
- Kidney damage and failure
A suspected meth overdose can result in death, a risk that can be decreased if medical treatment is provided immediately. Nevertheless, much of the organ damage caused by the overdose can be permanent, especially heart and kidney damage.
Symptoms and Risks of Withdrawal
The highly addictive nature of meth makes detox and withdrawal from the drug very difficult, as described by Psychology Today. One of the main challenges that makes stopping meth so difficult is caused by the high levels of dopamine that are present in the brain during use. The body’s response to these levels is often to shut down the cells that produce dopamine to try to restore balance in the brain. When the person subsequently stops using meth, dopamine drops extremely low, and sometimes, the body has a hard time increasing it again if the producing cells have lost function.
This results in a withdrawal state called anhedonia, which is the inability to feel pleasure. This, in turn, can lead to severe depression and even suicidal ideation that make the craving for the drug extremely strong, even many months after withdrawal is complete. In fact, sometimes it can be up to two years before the person recovering from meth addiction can begin to feel something like a typical pleasure response again.
In addition, there are no medications that have been found to support recovery from anhedonia. This withdrawal state is one that must be endured, and that accounts for a high relapse rate for those abusing or addicted to meth.
Treating a Meth Addiction
Even with the struggles that come with meth withdrawal and relapse risk, there are therapies that have shown to be effective in helping people avoid relapsing to meth use, explained by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. These include a combination of:
- Behavioral therapy
- Family and individual education
- Peer support programs
- Regular drug testing
- Motivational and non-drug activity intervention and engagement
Some of these motivational programs include Contingency Management, where the individual is given rewards for staying clean. With these therapies and personalized to support the specific individual’s needs, it is possible to recover from meth addiction and increase the potential for a productive life without meth use.