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What Are Prescription Stimulants?
A prescription stimulant is a central nervous system (CNS) stimulant used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy—a sleep disorder that causes episodes of sudden deep sleep. These medicines can help patients focus, remain vigilant, and control their behavior. Stimulants may also be used for weight loss or as a preoperative medication.
The most common prescription stimulants are:
- Dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine®)
- Methylphenidate (Ritalin®)
- Dextroamphetamine/amphetamine combination product (Adderall®)
Prescription Stimulant Side Effects
Amphetamines and methylphenidates enhance the brain’s utilization of dopamine and norepinephrine (noradrenaline), usually due to the lack thereof. This impacts the brain, body, and behavior.
Their side effects, when misused, are quite similar and can be separated into short-term and long-term effects. Let’s take a look.
The short-term side effects of prescription stimulant use may include:
- Sleep disruptions
- Abdominal pain
- Height and weight growth restriction
- Dilated pupils
- Increased body temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate
- Erratic, violent behavior
- Panic and psychosis
- Seizures, convulsions, or death if taken in high doses
Long-term prescription stimulant use can have several adverse health effects when not taken as directed.
Adverse health effects include:
- Permanent cardiovascular damage (heart, blood vessels in the brain)
- High blood pressure, which can cause stroke, heart attack, or death
- Respiratory problems (if smoking the drug)
- Damaged nose tissue (if snorting the drug)
- Weight loss
- Brain damage
- Strong addiction
Prescription Stimulant Addiction and Abuse
Abuse of prescription stimulants is widespread and on the rise, not only in the United States but also in Canada, Australia, and Europe. The International Narcotics Control Board has declared that prescription drugs are the world’s second most abused and trafficked drug.
In 2015, there were 4.8 million nonmedical users of prescription stimulants in the United States. Unfortunately, addiction to these drugs is common due to stimulants’ highly amplified effects on the brain. These stimulants are highly addictive because they target the same pleasure centers in the brain as other “uppers” like cocaine and methamphetamine (crystal meth).
“Prescription drugs can be lifesaving, but when abused, [prescription drugs] can be as life-threatening as illicit drugs.”
—Nora Volkow, MD, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
Signs You’re Addicted to Prescription Stimulants
Even though stimulants are prescribed for legitimate medical purposes, they can still be abused. Stimulant abuse has become increasingly common among people who take them for nonmedical purposes to boost attention or energy and, therefore, can lead to addiction.
If you are using Adderall (or another prescription stimulant) fairly regularly, several signs might indicate that you are addicted.
These signs of addiction might include:
- Seeking prescriptions from different doctors
- Major increase or decrease in sleep
- Taking higher doses than prescribed
- Using the drugs without a prescription
- “Losing” prescriptions to get refills
- Poor decision making
- Appearing energetic
- Stealing or forging prescriptions
Speak to a medical professional if you feel you’re addicted to stimulant prescriptions.
Prescription Stimulant Withdrawal
The mind and body go through many different changes during prescription stimulant withdrawal. This is why it’s essential to understand the specific withdrawal symptoms and how long it may take for your body and mind to calm down again.
Some people have reported not experiencing some or many symptoms, while others have reported experiencing nearly all of them. These symptoms include:
- Exhaustion and depression
- Psychomotor agitation or retardation
- Scary or weird dreams
- Insomnia or sleeping excessively
- Increased appetite
- Impaired memory
- Craving for the drug
- Slow heartbeat
- Dulled senses
- Body aches
If you have a history of depression, you can experience severe depression during stimulant withdrawal. People with mental health concerns are also more likely to develop severe withdrawal symptoms, which is why medical detox is strongly recommended when trying to cease the use of prescription stimulants.
Prescription Stimulant Overdose
Prescription stimulant overdose is dangerous and occurs when a person uses too much of this medicine or accidentally takes another drug that interacts with the medicine. More common in teenagers and young adults, an overdose can result in a negative reaction or even death.
When people overdose on stimulants, they experience symptoms such as:
- Irregular heartbeat, which might lead to a heart attack
- Stomach issues like abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, and nausea
- Nerve problems that might result in a seizure
- Very high or low blood pressure
- Dilated pupils which react slowly to light
- Increased body temperature
Can Prescription Stimulant Overdose Be Treated?
If you think someone is suffering from a prescription stimulant overdose, the first step should be to call 911. While waiting for the medics, you can do basic stimulant overdose treatment to help maintain the condition.
- If the person has hyperthermia, try cooling them down. A cold bath or ice cubes might help.
- Keep the person hydrated
- Try to de-escalate any aggressive behavior
- Speak in a calm, reassuring voice to prevent panic
- Give the person as much space as they need but keep an eye on them until the ambulance arrives
Prescription Stimulant Addiction Treatment
Prescription stimulant addiction can be a difficult addiction to quit. Still, many treatment options are available to help you or a loved one overcome the addiction and learn how to live a healthy, sober life.
“Far too often, shame and stigma fuel addiction and prevent treatment, but replacing judgment with compassion can save lives.”
—Nora Volkow, MD, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
Prescription Stimulant Detoxification
Medical Detox is the first step in the recovery process, but it should never be attempted without help.
Depending on the extent of use, detox should be done in a facility where the individual is monitored and cared for until they are no longer feeling any withdrawal effects, and then they can begin rehabilitation treatment.
Prescription Stimulant Treatment Programs
Numerous prescription drug treatment centers are available to help you overcome prescription drug addiction. Therapy within a rehab center will help alleviate the unpleasant symptoms of discontinuing your use. Additionally, you will learn the circumstances that led to your addiction and take steps to prevent relapse.
Some of the prescription stimulant treatment programs you can expect include:
Inpatient Rehab Program
An inpatient treatment program is best for individuals who need intense support while stopping the abuse of prescription stimulants.
Patients who enter an inpatient rehab facility seeking help for an addiction to prescription stimulants receive the medical, psychiatric, and counseling services needed to get sober.
Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP)
Partial hospitalization is a therapeutic program that provides a bridge between inpatient and outpatient treatment.
PHP allows clients to better understand their condition while developing the necessary skills to help their recovery. It offers a flexible schedule allowing clients to continue with family and work obligations.
Intensive Outpatient Program
The Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) provides a structured schedule of 3-4 hours per day, five days a week, in a group format. IOP is for patients needing group counseling sessions and individual therapy and who have already shown significant progress in treatment.
The Matrix Model
The Matrix Model for treating addiction to prescription stimulants is a dialectical behavioral treatment that uses group cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) between patients and their peers to achieve abstinence.
The treatment uses a 12-step recovery model to help people reduce their use of stimulants over time through the process of recovery and self-help group participation.
Prescription Stimulant Addiction Statistics
The National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports the following data regarding prescription stimulant use:
- Among the stimulants most abused for self-medication, Adderall has the highest usage rate at 75.8%.
- Approximately 6.6% (or 16 million) of U.S. adults used prescription stimulants in the preceding year
- Of those who reported prescription stimulant use, 2.1% (or 5 million) misused prescription stimulants at least once, and 0.2% (or nearly half a million) had developed prescription stimulant use disorders
It’s Not Too Late For You or Your Loved One
With prescription stimulant use on the rise, it can feel like a hopeless uphill battle—but recovery is not only within reach, it is highly possible. Whether your loved one is seeking treatment for their addiction, resources are available to help you through this difficult process.
Watching a friend or family member struggle with stimulant addiction can be difficult, especially if that person is not ready to seek help for their addiction. Thankfully, there are many support groups and resources for friends and family members to help you cope with what you are experiencing.
Prescription Stimulant Addiction FAQ
Can I get addicted to prescription stimulant drugs?
Yes. You can get addicted to stimulant drugs like Adderall, Concerta, Ritalin, Vyvanse, and others. Even if you feel like you will never misuse your prescription stimulants, they are still addictive drugs with the potential to cause dependence. They act on the same part of the brain as alcohol, tobacco, and other addictive drugs.
Can I avoid the side effects and risk factors of prescription stimulants?
No. Prescription stimulants pose a risk to patients who take them. Anyone abusing prescription stimulants is at risk of an overdose and can become addicted to or dependent on the drug.
I think I have ADHD; can I start taking prescription stimulants?
Prescription stimulants can be habit-forming and should only be used under a doctor’s supervision. They may cause serious side effects like heart problems, emotional changes, mental or mood problems, speech problems (e.g., slowed speech), sleep problems (e.g., insomnia), or addiction.