Medically Reviewed

Ritalin Addiction: Signs, Effects, and Treatment

4 min read · 5 sections

While Ritalin is a widely prescribed prescription stimulant used to treat conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), it also can be misused and lead to dependence and addiction.1 In fact, according to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 3.7 million people misused prescription stimulants such as Ritalin in the past year.2

If you or a loved one misuses Ritalin, it’s helpful to learn more about Ritalin addiction. Read on to discover insights about this prescription stimulant, the signs of Ritalin abuse and dependence, and why it’s important to seek treatment for Ritalin misuse.

What is Ritalin?

Ritalin is a brand name for the generic drug methylphenidate hydrochloride (pronounced meth-ill-fen-eh-date hy-dro-chlor-ide), which is a central nervous system stimulant that’s prescribed to treat ADHD and narcolepsy.1

Ritalin can help boost cognitive focus and performance in those with ADHD, and it has a calming action in children with hyperactivity.3 So instead of increasingly stimulating patients, Ritalin paradoxically allows people with ADHD to become less restless and distracted, in the hopes of improving daily functioning.3

Although methylphenidate has important therapeutic uses, it can also be misused. In fact, it and many prescription stimulants are categorized as Schedule II substances by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), indicating that they have a high potential for abuse and dependence.4

Why Do People Abuse Ritalin?

In addition to the therapeutic benefits of prescription stimulants such as Ritalin, immediate effects can include excitement, alertness, euphoria, and an increased sense of well-being.5 So some people misuse prescription stimulants for these subjectively desirable effects or simply to get high.4 Others do so to experiment, to alleviate withdrawal symptoms from other stimulants, or in the hopes of cognitive enhancement and/or improved memory.4,6

In terms of cognitive enhancement, methylphenidate misuse is most common among those younger than 25 who use it as a study aid.4 That said, studies find that stimulant use is actually negatively associated with academic performance.7 So despite perceptions, Ritalin may not facilitate academic accomplishments.

How Do People Misuse Ritalin?

When used illicitly, people might consume tablets orally, or they might grind them into powdered form and then smoke or snort the powder or mix it with water and inject it.8,9 Exactly how fast the onset and duration of effects are felt, as well as how long Ritalin stays in your system, may be influenced by the specific route of use and other various factors. Methylphenidate’s effects may be felt 30 to 45 minutes after the tablets are taken orally.10 However, when Ritalin is misused and injected, smoked, or snorted, it can take effect much quicker, creating  a “flash” or a “rush.”9

How Are Prescription Stimulants Obtained?

In the vast majority of time when prescription stimulants are obtained for misuse, the substance is given by, bought from, or stolen from the user’s friends or relatives.11

Counterfeit Ritalin Can Be Deadly

Various substances may be illicitly manufactured as counterfeit pills that look very similar to other prescription medications such as OxyContin,  Xanax, Valium, Adderall, etc. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, these fake pills often contain methamphetamine or fentanyl, which can be deadly. In fact, DEA testing showed that 6 out of every 10 counterfeit pills with fentanyl contain a potentially lethal dose.12

Side Effects of Ritalin

Along with aforementioned therapeutic effects, Ritalin can cause a host of side effects. Common adverse effects (for Ritalin, Ritalin-SR, and Ritalin LA) include:1,13

  • Headache.
  • Insomnia.
  • Anxiety.
  • Elevated blood pressure and heart rate, i.e.,
  • Palpitations
  • Dry mouth.
  • Nausea.
  • Abdominal pain.
  • Decreased appetite.
  • Weight loss.

Additionally, serious cardiovascular risks including sudden death, stroke, and heart attack have been reported in relation to methylphenidate.1

Adverse psychiatric reactions can also occur and may include worsening of symptoms of behavior disturbance and thought disorder in people who have a pre-existing psychotic disorder; an induction of a manic or mixed mood episode; and psychotic or manic symptoms even in people without a prior history of mania or psychotic disorder.1

Other adverse reactions can include:1

  • Priapism (prolonged erection).
  • Peripheral vasculopathy, including Raynaud’s phenomenon.
  • Long-term suppression of growth.

Ritalin Abuse

Since Ritalin is a prescribed medication, some people incorrectly assume it’s safe no matter how—and how frequently—it’s taken. But Ritalin has a high potential for abuse. In fact, warnings on its drug label indicate that use of Ritalin can lead to tolerance, dependence, addiction, overdose, and death.1

According to the manufacturer’s label, signs of methylphenidate abuse can include:1

  • Hyperactivity.
  • Restlessness.
  • Insomnia.
  • Dilated pupils.
  • Increased heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure.
  • Increased sweating.
  • Flushed skin.
  • Decreased appetite.
  • Vomiting.
  • Abdominal pain.
  • Loss of coordination.
  • Tremors.

Is Ritalin Addictive?

Yes, misuse of prescription stimulants such as Ritalin is associated with substance use disorder and use of other substances.6 In fact, a stimulant use disorder may develop as rapidly as after one week of continuous misuse, although this speed of onset is rare.14

A stimulant use disorder is a chronic medical condition that involves compulsive, uncontrollable drug-seeking and using behaviors. Development of stimulant use disorder and other types of substance use disorders is thought to be accompanied by characteristic changes in the brain that make it very hard for the person to quit. And doing so typically requires much more than determination and good intentions.15

Keep in mind, research suggests that use of prescription stimulants in appropriately diagnosed patients doesn’t lead to a stimulant use disorder or increase the risk of serious adverse effects. Additionally, long-term use results in continued alleviation of symptoms while the medication is being taken.5 Studies also indicate that adolescents receiving stimulant treatment for ADHD do not have an increased or decreased risk of developing a substance use disorder.8

Ritalin Overdose

Just as with several other prescription stimulants, it’s possible to overdose on Ritalin.1 Signs of an overdose related to a central nervous system stimulant can include:8

  • Restlessness.
  • Confusion.
  • Panic.
  • Aggression.
  • Hallucinations.
  • Fever.
  • Rapid breathing.
  • Gastrointestinal issues such as cramps, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting.
  • Heart problems, such as an irregular heartbeat, circulatory collapse, and heart attack.
  • Muscle pains and weakness.
  • Overactive reflexes.
  • Tremors.
  • Seizures and convulsions.
  • Coma.

An overdose is a medical emergency that can be fatal. If you suspect that someone is overdosing, call 911 immediately and remain with the person until emergency medical personnel arrive.8

Ritalin Addiction Treatment

Addiction is a chronic and complex disease. However, treatment is available that can help lead people toward recovery.15 Treatment can help address the underlying issues associated with addiction and teach you skills to help you stick with your recovery.

Although there are no medications specifically approved to manage stimulant withdrawal or stimulant use disorder, rehabilitation treatment and other forms of professional recovery support can provide many benefits, both during and after the withdrawal period.16

Effective Ritalin addiction treatment will likely involve behavioral therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and contingency management.8 Treatment for stimulant use disorders and/or co-occurring conditions can take place in various settings, including inpatient facilities, where you live on site and receive 24/7 care, monitoring, and attention.  Another option is outpatient rehab, which involves living at home and visiting a treatment locale on a regular schedule.17

It’s important that stimulant use disorder treatment also address and treat any co-occurring conditions that may be present. Substance use disorders and co-occurring disorders go hand in hand, which is to say if you have one you may have the other. Co-occurring disorders can include a host of conditions including anxiety, ADHD, depression, bipolar disorder, and others. Generally, it’s most effective to treat the substance abuse disorder and the co-occurring disorder at the same time.18 Most treatment facilities are trained to evaluate and diagnose the various disorders in order to provide the treatment that best fits your needs.

If you or a loved one is dealing with Ritalin misuse or addiction, know that you’re not alone and help is available. American Addiction Centers is a leading provider of treatment for Ritalin addiction with rehabs located nationwide. Call to speak to one of our who can help you take your first steps toward recovery.




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