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Methamphetamine Addiction: Definition, Symptoms, Withdrawal, Causes, and Treatment

Methamphetamine, commonly known as “meth,” is a potent central nervous system stimulant that is associated with severe health and social consequences. According to a comprehensive study (“Methamphetamine: Know Your Options,”) provided by Indiana University, methamphetamine dramatically affects both the brain and body, leading to a spectrum of issues ranging from immediate euphoria to long-term brain damage.

The allure of methamphetamine lies in its ability to produce a rapid and intense euphoric effect. However, this feeling fades quickly, prompting a cycle of repeated use that swiftly leads to addiction. Addiction manifests as a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking, continued use despite harmful consequences, and long-lasting changes in the brain. Methamphetamine is typically consumed by swallowing, smoking, injecting, or snorting, which leads to varied immediate health risks and the potential for overdose.

Chronic methamphetamine use causes numerous complications including cardiovascular problems, increased risk of infectious diseases, and severe dental issues known as “meth mouth.” Moreover, the drug has profound neurotoxic effects that result in cognitive deficits and emotional disturbances. Pregnant women using methamphetamine face additional risks such as premature delivery, placental abruption, and fetal abnormalities.

Treatment for methamphetamine addiction is challenging due to the lack of FDA-approved medications. However, effective approaches primarily involve behavioral therapies, including cognitive-behavioral therapy and motivational incentives, which help patients manage their addiction and regain control of their lives.

What is Methamphetamine Addiction and Methamphetamine Use Disorder (MUD)?

what is meth addiction

Methamphetamine addiction or Methamphetamine Use Disorder (MUD) is a condition characterized by the chronic and compulsive use of methamphetamine despite significant negative consequences. Individuals with MUD often experience a strong desire to use the drug, increased tolerance, withdrawal symptoms upon cessation, and difficulties in controlling their usage. The disorder impacts various aspects of life, including physical health, mental health, and social functioning. Methamphetamine use disorder is formally recognized and diagnosed based on specific criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) published by the American Psychiatric Association.

MUD arises when individuals repeatedly use this powerful stimulant, leading to changes in brain chemistry that foster dependency and compulsive drug-seeking behavior. Methamphetamine are a potent central nervous system stimulant recognized for increasing talkativeness, activity levels, and euphoria while suppressing appetite when a person. Its potent effects result from its ability to infiltrate the brain more effectively than amphetamine, making it a substance with a high potential for abuse according to Moszczynska, A. (2021). Current and Emerging Treatments for Methamphetamine Use Disorder. Current Neuropharmacology.

Methamphetamine use disorder (MUD) poses significant public health challenges due to its widespread prevalence and severe consequences. According to Gouzoulis-Mayfrank et al. (2017), methamphetamine use can lead to a range of psychiatric, cognitive, and physical health issues, underscoring the need for effective treatments.

In the United States, methamphetamine is classified as a Schedule II stimulant by the Drug Enforcement Administration, indicating its potential for abuse but also its legitimate, albeit rare, medical uses in low doses for conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and weight loss. Despite these limited legal applications, the illicit manufacture and use of methamphetamine are widespread, particularly in forms imported in liquid and powder states from Mexico and then processed into crystals and pills.

The history of amphetamine-type stimulants reveals their early medical and non-medical uses, as detailed by Rasmussen (2015). These stimulants were initially used for various medical purposes before their potential for abuse became evident . Rasmussen (2006) further explores how amphetamines were initially developed as antidepressants in American medicine between 1929 and 1950, reflecting their early therapeutic promise and subsequent regulation due to abuse potential . During World War II, amphetamines were used extensively by the military to enhance alertness and performance, highlighting the dual-edged nature of these substances as both aids and potential drugs of abuse (Rasmussen, 2011) .

What are the treatments for methamphetamine addiction?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the most effective treatments for methamphetamine addiction are behavioral therapies. These include:

  1. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): This therapy helps patients understand and change the thoughts and behaviors that lead to substance use. It also teaches coping strategies to handle triggers and stress.
  2. Contingency Management Interventions: This approach provides tangible rewards for positive behaviors such as staying drug-free. For example, the Motivational Incentives for Enhancing Drug Abuse Recovery (MIEDAR) program has shown efficacy in promoting abstinence among methamphetamine users.
  3. The Matrix Model: This 16-week comprehensive treatment program combines several behavioral therapies, family education, individual counseling, 12-step support, drug testing, and encouragement for non-drug-related activities. It has been shown to reduce methamphetamine misuse effectively.

Although medications have been effective for treating other substance use disorders, there are currently no approved medications specifically for treating methamphetamine addiction. Therefore, behavioral therapies remain the cornerstone of treatment according to NIDA. 2021, April 13. What treatments are effective for people who misuse methamphetamine?

What are the Symptoms of Methamphetamine Addiction?

symptoms of meth addiction

The Symptoms Of Meth Addiction Include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Craving
  • Low appetite
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Loss of interest or pleasure
  • Low or no motivation
  • Restlessness
  • Premature aging of the skin
  • Hallucinations
  • Memory problem
  • Paranoia
  • Irregular breathing patterns
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Inability to stop usage despite adverse effects
  • Failing to fulfill obligations (at school, work, home, or among friends)
  • Withdrawal

What are the Withdrawal Symptoms of Methamphetamine Addiction? 

Meth Withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Depression: Often severe, generally resolves within the first week.
  • Anxiety: Frequently accompanies withdrawal, with gradual alleviation.
  • Fatigue: Significant tiredness that decreases over time.
  • Increased appetite: Common during the acute phase of withdrawal.
  • Cravings for methamphetamine: Persist at high levels during the first week and continue, although at a reduced level, for at least five weeks.
  • Psychotic symptoms: Such as paranoia or hallucinations, which are not common to all individuals but may occur, especially in those with a history of prolonged use.
  • Sleep disturbances: Including insomnia or hypersomnia, adjusting over time.
  • Physical discomfort: Including headaches, joint pains, or muscle pains.
  • Emotional instability: Including mood swings and irritability.
  • Cognitive difficulties: Such as poor concentration and memory issues.

Methamphetamine withdrawal symptoms are both psychological and physical, emerging as a result of cessation after prolonged use. According to a study by Todd Zorick and colleagues from the University of California, Los Angeles, published in “Addiction” in October 2010, the primary symptoms experienced during methamphetamine withdrawal include depression, anxiety, fatigue, increased appetite, and an intense craving for the drug. These symptoms are severe and are a significant factor in the high rates of relapse among users trying to quit.

The study highlights that while depressive and psychotic symptoms tend to resolve within a week of cessation, the craving for methamphetamine does not decrease significantly until the second week and continues at a reduced level up to the fifth week of abstinence. This prolonged craving makes abstinence particularly challenging and underscores the need for targeted support during this period. 

Furthermore, the presence of psychiatric symptoms such as depression and psychosis during early abstinence indicates a high level of underlying psychopathology, which may require concurrent treatment. The findings from this study are crucial for developing effective treatment and support systems for individuals undergoing methamphetamine withdrawal, aiming to reduce the likelihood of relapse and support long-term recovery.

Why Does Methamphetamine Withdrawal Happen? 

Methamphetamine withdrawal occurs due to the brain’s adaptive responses to prolonged drug use. According to research led by Todd Zorick and colleagues from the University of California, Los Angeles, published in the journal “Addiction” in October 2010, chronic methamphetamine use results in significant neurochemical and structural changes in the brain. These changes lead to alterations in neurotransmitter systems, particularly those involving dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine.

The brain adjusts to the constant presence of methamphetamine by reducing the production and sensitivity of its own neurotransmitters. When methamphetamine use is suddenly discontinued, the brain experiences a significant deficit in these neurotransmitters, leading to various withdrawal symptoms. The severity and duration of withdrawal symptoms are influenced by how the brain’s reward and stress pathways have been altered during drug use.

The study emphasizes that withdrawal symptoms, including cravings, depression, and anxiety, are the brain’s response to the sudden lack of stimulation provided by methamphetamine. These symptoms are also exacerbated by the drug’s impact on the brain’s ability to experience pleasure, manage stress, and maintain cognitive functions, making withdrawal a particularly challenging period for recovering users.

How Long Does Methamphetamine Withdrawal Last?

Methamphetamine withdrawal typically lasts from a few days to several weeks. According to the article “Crystal Meth Withdrawal Symptoms, Timeline, and Effects,” written by Brittany Tackett, MA, and reviewed by Scot Thomas, M.D., the duration and severity of withdrawal symptoms vary significantly depending on the duration of methamphetamine use, the amount consumed, and the individual’s general health.

The acute phase of withdrawal, which is when symptoms are most intense, generally lasts for about 7 to 10 days. During this period, individuals may experience severe depression, anxiety, fatigue, and an intense craving for the drug. These symptoms are often accompanied by other physical symptoms such as increased appetite, sleep disturbances, and even psychosis in severe cases.

Following the acute phase, a subacute phase may last for an additional two to three weeks. During this time, many of the physical symptoms begin to subside, but psychological symptoms such as low mood and cravings may persist. This phase is crucial as the risk of relapse is high due to the lingering psychological effects.

Overall, the withdrawal timeline often extends up to several weeks, and some residual effects, like mood disturbances or cravings, will continue for months after cessation. The article underscores the importance of professional support and treatment to manage withdrawal symptoms effectively and reduce the risk of relapse. Long-term recovery programs and support groups provide the necessary help to navigate this challenging period.

effects of meth addiction

What are the Effects and Risks of Methamphetamine Use?

The effects of using methamphetamine on the body are either short-term or long-term. The short-term effects include:

  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Higher or lower blood pressure
  • Fast or slow heartbeat
  • Perspiration
  • Chills
  • Respiratory issues
  • Muscular weakness
  • Confusion
  • Seizures
  • Coma

Long-term effects and risks include:

  • Aggressiveness 
  • Impaired motor skills
  • Lack of thought clarity
  • Weight loss
  • Mood swings
  • Psychosis

What are the Causes of Methamphetamine Addiction?

Several factors increase the risk of methamphetamine addiction. They include:

  • Heredity: According to different studies and research, an individual with a family history of addiction is at a higher risk of being addicted to a substance. For example, children whose parents have or had methamphetamine addiction are at a higher risk of developing the same issue.
  • Mental Health Disorders: According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 31.3% of individuals with a serious mental illness use illicit drugs. Therefore, people with mental health disorders are more vulnerable to methamphetamine addiction because they often turn to drugs for relief. Addiction and mental health disorders have a complex connection.
  • History of physical and psychological abuse: Individuals with a history of abuse or addiction are at a higher risk of methamphetamine addiction. 
  • Loneliness or depression: Individuals feeling depressed or lonely are more likely to develop addiction.
  • Peer pressure or curiosity: Many young people using drugs get into it because of friends or curiosity. So, individuals with friends using methamphetamine are at a higher risk of addiction.
  • Environment or the ease of access: Individuals who easily access methamphetamine are at a higher risk of using it and developing addiction. 

How Common is Meth Addiction?

Methamphetamine addiction is very common, with about 1.6 million people aged 12 or older, or 0.6% of the population, reported to have a methamphetamine use disorder in the past year, according to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

The alarming rise in methamphetamine-related mortality underscores the need for targeted interventions. A comprehensive study conducted by Han et al. (2021) reported significant increases in methamphetamine use (43%), frequent use (66%), and Methamphetamine Use Disorder (MUD) without injection (105%). Notably, the prevalence of MUD or injection use surpassed methamphetamine use without MUD or injection from 2017 to 2019, with adults with MUD or injection use being more likely to use methamphetamine frequently. The study further identified that risk factors for methamphetamine use, MUD, and frequent use included socioeconomic challenges such as lower educational attainment, lower household income, housing instability, and lack of insurance, as well as health comorbidities like HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B or C, and depression. These findings highlight the urgent need for evidence-based prevention and treatment strategies to combat the escalating trends in methamphetamine use and related disorders.

How Many Deaths Are Attributed To Meth Overdose?

In 2021, there were approximately 32,537 deaths reported from overdoses involving psychostimulants with abuse potential, primarily methamphetamine, according to the CDC and Han et al. (2021) found that from 2015 to 2019, overdose deaths involving methamphetamine increased by 180%, highlighting the growing public health crisis.

This high number of fatalities highlights the severe risks associated with methamphetamine use, particularly in the context of overdose. Methamphetamine overdoses often lead to a range of lethal symptoms including heart attack, stroke, and multiple organ failure due to the drug’s intense effects on the cardiovascular and central nervous systems.

The increasing trend in methamphetamine-related overdose deaths underscores the need for enhanced public health interventions and access to effective treatment and harm reduction services. These services are crucial for addressing the underlying issues of addiction and preventing overdose deaths.

What Are The Other Names Used For Meth?

The other popular names of methamphetamine are:

  • Meth 
  • Chalk
  • Crystal 
  • Ice 
  • Crank 
  • Shards 
  • Crissy 
  • Cristy 
  • Speed 
  • Tina 
  • Glass 
  • Tweak 
  • Whizz

How does methamphetamine addiction impact mental health?

Methamphetamine addiction significantly impacts mental health, leading to conditions such as anxiety, paranoia, and long-lasting psychotic disorders. These mental health issues arise due to methamphetamine’s effects on neurotransmitters in the brain, which alter mood, perception, and emotional stability. The chronic use of methamphetamine exacerbates underlying mental health conditions or trigger new psychiatric symptoms. This information is highlighted in the study by Todd Zorick et al., “Withdrawal symptoms in abstinent methamphetamine-dependent subjects,” published in Addiction, 2010.

What role does the family play in the treatment of methamphetamine addiction?

Family involvement is crucial in the treatment of methamphetamine addiction as it provides essential support and motivation for the individual undergoing treatment. Engaging families in the treatment process improves treatment outcomes by fostering a supportive environment, helping to manage triggers and stress, and reinforcing the behaviors learned in therapy. This approach is central to the Matrix Model, which incorporates family education and therapy as a key component of its comprehensive treatment strategy, as discussed in the NIDA report “What treatments are effective for people who misuse methamphetamine?” published on April 13, 2021.

Can methamphetamine addiction lead to changes in sexual behavior?

Yes, methamphetamine addiction often leads to significant changes in sexual behavior, often increasing sexual desire and risky sexual behaviors. This change results in heightened exposure to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. These behavioral changes are typically fueled by the drug’s effects on judgment and inhibition, as well as its ability to increase libido. Such impacts are outlined in the article “Crystal Meth Withdrawal Symptoms, Timeline, and Effects,” written by Brittany Tackett, MA, reviewed by Scot Thomas, M.D., last updated on May 24, 2022.

How Does Methamphetamine interact with other Substances?

Methamphetamine can dangerously interact with other substances. According to the “Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series 24”, methamphetamine interactions include alcohol, opioids, benzodiazepines, antidepressants (especially MAOIs), and other stimulants such as cocaine and MDMA, which increase the risk of severe health complications and overdose​​​​.

How do methamphetamines interact with opioids?

According to the “Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series 24”, methamphetamine interacts with opioids by significantly increasing the risk of overdose due to the opposing effects on the central nervous system. Methamphetamine is a powerful stimulant, while opioids are depressants; their concurrent use can lead to unpredictable and dangerous effects on heart rate and lead to a methamphetamine-induced stroke, breathing, and overall body function, greatly elevating the likelihood of severe health complications and death​​.

It is possible to be addicted to both Meth and Opioids at the same time. This is known as polysubstance abuse and it is a common occurrence in substance abusers. Polysubstance abuse can lead to even more severe complications and requires a specialized treatment approach.

How Does Meth Interact With Alcohol?

Methamphetamine and ethanol, when used together, often leads to increased cardiac work, which might produce more adverse cardiovascular effects than using either drug alone. This interaction was studied by Mendelson J, Jones RT, Upton R, Jacob P 3rd in their research, “Methamphetamine and ethanol interactions in humans,” published in Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics in May 1995. The study involved administering intravenous methamphetamine and oral ethanol, both separately and in combination, to a group of users. The findings demonstrated that the combination of methamphetamine and ethanol increased the heart rate but decreased systolic blood pressure, leading to a net increase in the rate pressure product, an index of cardiac work and myocardial oxygen consumption.

Interestingly, while the combination diminished the subjective effects of alcohol, it did not affect the subjective effects of methamphetamine. This could suggest that users might not feel as intoxicated from alcohol as they would expect, which might lead to consuming larger amounts of alcohol, thereby increasing the risk of alcohol-related harm without perceiving greater methamphetamine effects. The study also noted that the pharmacokinetics of methamphetamine were largely unchanged by the concurrent use of alcohol, except for a lowering in the apparent volume of distribution at steady state for methamphetamine. This complex interaction highlights the potential for increased risks when these two substances are used together, including greater strain on the cardiovascular system and altered perception of intoxication as alcohol use disorder already does alone.

How does Meth interact with benzos like Clonazepam?

Methamphetamine and Clonazepam are both drugs that can cause addiction. However, there are some differences between the two substances. Methamphetamine is a stimulant drug, while Clonazepam is a sedative. Meth addiction is characterized by increased energy, euphoria, and decreased appetite, while Clonazepam addiction can lead to drowsiness and muscle relaxation. Taking the substances together can cause adverse interactions, similar to that of a speedball or cocaine and alcohol, taking a sedative and a depressant at the same time cause conflict within the body. Additionally, the reasons for addiction may vary, with meth often being used as a performance enhancer or party drug, while Clonazepam may be prescribed for anxiety or panic disorders. Treatment for addiction to either drug may involve therapy, medication, and support groups.

How does methamphetamine use interact with antidepressants (especially MAOIs) inside the human body?

According to a study by Kitanaka et al. (2006) titled “Modification of Monoaminergic Activity by MAO Inhibitors Influences Methamphetamine Actions,” methamphetamine interacts dangerously with antidepressants, particularly monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). Methamphetamine increases the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, while MAOIs inhibit the breakdown of these neurotransmitters. This combination can lead to excessively high levels of these chemicals in the brain, resulting in serious conditions such as hypertensive crisis and serotonin syndrome. Symptoms include agitation, confusion, rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, and in severe cases, seizures and even death. The study emphasizes the need for careful attention to the potential risks when considering MAOIs for the treatment of methamphetamine abuse due to these dangerous interactions​​.

Ryan Wakim MD
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Dr. Wakim is a board-certified psychiatrist with a passion for and expertise in addiction, mood disorders, trauma-related disorders and the subspecialty of interventional psychiatry. He obtained his medical degree from West Virginia University where he also completed his residency training, finishing as chief resident. Dr. Wakim co-founded and served as the CEO of Transformations leading to a successful merger with Shore Capital in May 2021. He is purpose driven towards improving the standard of and removing stigma related to behavioral healthcare. Dr. Wakim enjoys golf, traveling and time spent with his two dogs, Lulu and Rayna.

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