Methamphetamine, or meth, is a powerful and addictive stimulant drug.
As of 2015, around 6 percent of the American population (aged 12 and older) had tried it at least once, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports. Found as a white powder or in glass-like form called crystal meth, meth is generally smoked, injected, swallowed, or snorted.
As a stimulant, meth increases activity in certain areas of the brain, and functions of the central nervous system are heightened as a result. For example, heart rate, body temperature, respiration, and blood pressure all rise under the influence of meth. Energy, attention, focus, pleasure, and excitement are enhanced as well, as chemical messengers in the brain, such as dopamine, are increased by the interaction of meth. Elevated levels of dopamine cause the intense “high” that is associated with meth, and the desire to recreate this feeling makes the drug extremely addictive.
When someone is taking meth, they are alert and energized, and can stay awake for long periods of time. When meth wears off, however, a significant “crash” generally occurs, leaving individuals feeling fatigued, lethargic, hungry, depressed, and anxious. As a result, meth is commonly taken in a binge pattern, often called a “run,” where small amounts of meth are taken every few hours for a couple days to prolong the high. This pattern of abuse can more quickly lead to drug dependence and addiction.
The National Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS) reports that in 2014 approximately 53 people per 100,000 were receiving care at a specialized addiction treatment facility for issues involving methamphetamine.
Methamphetamine affects dopamine levels in the brain, causing a flood of the neurotransmitter that disrupts normal functioning. Dopamine is not only responsible for feeling pleasure, but also for motivation, movement, memory functions, learning, and reward processing. In short, meth makes a person feel good and makes them want to continue taking it to keep feeling this way.
Taking meth repeatedly can build up a tolerance to the drug that will then require a person to take higher doses more often to feel the same effects as before. It may become difficult to feel happy without meth, and withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, increased appetite, depression, and even psychosis can occur when it wears off. This is called drug dependence, which can form rather quickly with chronic meth abuse and even faster with binge use and escalating dosages.
Once dependence forms, changes are made in how the brain functions and to its chemical makeup and circuitry. Compulsive drug-seeking behaviors and a loss of the ability to control how much and how often meth is taken can occur. This inability to control meth use coupled with the changes made in the brain are some of the primary hallmarks of addiction.
Addiction can create a myriad of social, emotional, physical, and behavioral issues. When someone suffers from addiction to meth, getting the drug, using it, and recovering from it can consume them, and other activities take a backseat. Interpersonal relationships suffer as mood swings can be unpredictable, and the person may consistently shirk regular responsibilities and obligations. Grades and work output drop, and unemployment, financial strain, and homelessness can be the result of meth addiction. Meth abuse also leads to lowered inhibitions and an increase in risk-taking and possible suicidal behaviors.
Health problems generally crop up too. The Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) publishes that over 100,000 people received medical treatment in an emergency department (ED) for meth abuse in 2011.
Short-term side effects of meth abuse and addiction also include the potential for a life-threatening overdose. The effects on the heart and central nervous system can overwhelm the system and lead to seizures, heart attack, stroke, dangerously high body temperature, agitation, irregular heart rate, difficulties breathing, kidney failure, coma, and even death. When meth is mixed with other drugs, the likelihood of an adverse reaction and possible overdose increases greatly.
Long-term use of meth can cause significant damage to the brain and the cells that make dopamine as well as to the nerve cells containing serotonin. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) warns that chronic and prolonged meth exposure can damage as many as half of the dopamine-producing cells in the brain and potentially even more of the serotonin-containing nerve cells.
Individuals who use meth long-term can have severe cognitive and emotional issues, including:
Skin sores and infections from picking, tooth decay and “meth mouth,” significant and unhealthy weight loss, and an increased risk for contracting an infectious or sexually transmitted disease are common side effects of methamphetamine addiction. People who regularly inject the drug may suffer from collapsed veins and a higher risk for contracting HIV/AIDS or hepatitis. Snorting meth can damage sinus cavities and nasal passages, and lead to chronic nosebleeds and/or a perpetual runny nose. Smoking meth may lead to respiratory damage and lung complications.NIDA reports that meth addiction can also possibly increase the risk for developing the nerve and movement disorder Parkinson’s disease. Psychotic symptoms, memory problems, and cognitive and emotional issues can persist for several years after stopping meth use, NIDA further warns. While some of the damage to the brain may be reversible with long-term abstinence from meth, some of the changes may be permanent.
The American Journal on Addictions published studies showing that around 40 percent of people seeking treatment for methamphetamine abuse also reported struggling with anxiety. Mood and anxiety disorders and drug abuse co-occur at rates as high as 50 percent, NIDA publishes.
Meth abuse and dependence can cause anxiety just as someone struggling with anxiety may take a drug like meth to self-medicate difficult symptoms of an anxiety disorder. Either way, meth abuse worsens anxiety in the long run and can make treatment for both the anxiety disorder and addiction more complicated.
The best method for treating co-occurring disorders is considered to be simultaneous and integrated care for both disorders. In this way, both the addiction and the anxiety can be addressed and managed in order to enhance recovery for both conditions. A combination of medications and therapeutic measures should be employed by highly trained medical, mental health, and addiction treatment professionals.
The longer someone takes meth, and the higher the dosage, the more severely dependent on the drug they are likely to be. A high level of dependence means that withdrawal will be difficult. Withdrawal symptoms are optimally managed through a medical detox regime like that provided in a comprehensive treatment program. There are no specific medications designed to treat meth addiction; however, some medications can be helpful in managing specific symptoms of withdrawal like those that address depression, anxiety, and tremors.
The National Library of Medicine (NLM) reports that the sooner someone receives help for meth abuse, the better the long-term prognosis is. Meth is highly addictive, and the emotional lows and severe drug cravings associated with its use can make relapse highly likely. It is important to stay vigilant and for an individual to remain in an addiction treatment program for long enough to form healthy habits, to allow new brain connections to form, and to learn relapse prevention techniques to control cravings.
NIDA recommends at least 90 days in a specialized addiction treatment program.
Behavioral therapies are usually considered the ideal form of treatment for meth addiction, per NIDA. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) uses both individual and group sessions to teach stress management, coping tools, communication, and other life skills to maintain abstinence and improve thinking and behavior patterns overall.Another form of behavioral therapy used for meth and stimulant addiction is one that uses motivational incentives, or contingency management, as a method to maintain sobriety. With this program, individuals are rewarded for clean drug tests, and this can help to boost treatment compliance and the motivation to continue to remain drug-free.
Support groups, such as the 12-Step-based program Crystal Meth Anonymous (CMA), can connect individuals with peers who can relate to what they are going through and offer hope, encouragement, and tips on remaining abstinent. Family therapy, counseling, and educational programs can all help to promote a lasting recovery as well.
Methamphetamine can cause long-term damage to the brain, which can require specialized treatment and continuous care over a sustained period of time to promote abstinence. With proper treatment, individuals can learn to manage the possible side effects of repeated abuse and disruption to the brain, and minimize instances of relapse for a healthy recovery.