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Prescription Stimulant Addiction

Stimulants are a Schedule II class of drugs, including Adderall®, Ritalin®, and other prescription medications sometimes used to treat ADHD, Parkinson’s disease, or depression. Unfortunately, these medications can be habit forming and lead to full blown addictions for some people. Many people are left trying to overcome an unexpected substance use disorder with intense withdrawal symptoms.

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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.

Prescription stimulants can also be used to treat Parkinson’s disease and depression. Occasionally, they may be prescribed for weight loss.

The most common prescription stimulants are:

  • Adderall® (dextroamphetamine/amphetamine combination product)
  • Ritalin® (methylphenidate)
  • Dexedrine® (dextroamphetamine)
  • Vyvanse® (lisdexamfetamine dimesylate)

Prescription Stimulant 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.

As of 2021, an estimated 16 million American adults used prescription stimulants. Of that number, more than 5 million misused prescription stimulants, the most commonly cited reason being “cognitive enhancement” (i.e., boosting focus and concentration).

Stimulant abuse has become widespread among young people (college students in particular) who take prescription stimulants as study aids. However, many stimulant users report using Adderall® or similar stimulants without a prescription.

Unfortunately, addiction to prescription stimulants is common due to their 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).

Some key signs of prescription stimulant 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 unusually energetic
  • Stealing or forging prescriptions

“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)

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Prescription Stimulant Side Effects

Prescription stimulants help patients focus, remain vigilant, and control their behavior. More specifically, the amphetamines and methylphenidates allow the brain to utilize dopamine and norepinephrine better, causing changes to the brain, body, and behavior.

Prescription stimulant side effects 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
  • Headache
  • Height and weight growth restriction
  • Anxiety
  • 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 abuse can lead to several serious health problems, including:

  • Permanent cardiovascular damage (heart, blood vessels in the brain)
  • High blood pressure, which can cause stroke, heart attack, or death
  • Respiratory problems (if smoking prescription stimulants)
  • Damaged nose tissue (if snorting prescription stimulants)
  • Weight loss
  • Brain damage
  • Psychosis
  • Exhaustion
  • Strong addiction to prescription stimulants

Prescription Stimulant Overdose

Prescription stimulant overdose is dangerous and can occur when a person takes too much of a prescription stimulant or takes it with another substance (i.e., alcohol).

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

What to Do for a Prescription Stimulant Overdose

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 primary stimulant overdose treatment to help maintain the condition.

  1. If the person has hyperthermia, try cooling them down. A cold bath or ice cubes might help.
  2. Keep the person hydrated
  3. Try to de-escalate any aggressive behavior
  4. Speak in a calm, reassuring voice to prevent panic
  5. 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 on your own.

Thankfully, healthcare professionals have developed a variety of solutions to help treat this particular substance use disorder, from support groups and therapy to various levels of rehab programs.

Prescription Stimulant Detoxification

Medical detox is sometimes the first step in recovering from prescription stimulant addiction.

Depending on the extent of drug use, prescription stimulant detox can often occur in an outpatient capacity. If stimulant drug use was severe or the person abused other drugs, they may need to check into a detox facility to receive around-the-clock monitoring.

Your doctor or similar healthcare provider can help you determine which route is safest and will provide you with the best results.

Prescription Stimulant Withdrawal

The mind and body go through many different changes during prescription stimulant withdrawal.

Some people have reported not experiencing some or many symptoms, while others have reported experiencing nearly all of them.

Prescription stimulant withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Exhaustion and depression
  • 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 prescription stimulant withdrawal.

Prescription Stimulant Rehab Programs

In some instances, attending a rehab program can make a huge difference when overcoming prescription stimulant addiction.

Many people assume that rehab requires checking in and staying at a facility, but that’s only one type of program offered. There are many other options depending on your addiction level and any additional needs (such as co-occurring diagnoses).

Some of the prescription stimulant rehab 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 provides a similar daytime schedule that you might expect from an inpatient program but without the overnight/weekend stay.
  • Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP): An IOP offers a structured schedule in a group format. It is considered the lowest level of intensity and may be recommended for those with a minor prescription stimulant addiction or for folks exiting a more intensive program (like PHP or residential/inpatient care).

Therapy Options for Stimulant Addiction

Therapy is a key to substance abuse treatment for any drug use, and psychotherapy—such as cognitive behavioral therapy—is cited as one of the most successful therapies for addiction recovery.

In addition, the following addiction therapy types are very successful in prescription stimulant addiction treatment specifically:

  • The Matrix Model: The Matrix Model uses a 12-step recovery model to help people reduce their use of stimulants over time through recovery and self-help group participation.
  • Contingency Management: Using motivational incentives (i.e., earning rewards for milestones reached, successful days sober, etc.) Contingency Management is a form of mentor-led therapy that helps recovering addicts take a highly active, engaging approach to their ongoing recovery and sobriety progress.
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Prescription Stimulant Addiction Statistics

The National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports the following data about prescription stimulant use per the 2021 National Survey of Drug Use and Health (NSDUH):

  • 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 past year.
  • Of those who reported prescription stimulant use, 2.1% (or 5 million) misused prescription stimulants at least once; 0.4 million people had developed prescription stimulant use disorders due to misuse.

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.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has free resources to help you find addiction counselors, treatment programs, and rehab centers near you.

You can call the SAMHSA hotline at 1-800-662-4357 (HELP) or visit their online treatment locator to find the help you need.

Get Help for Prescription Stimulant Addiction

If you have become addicted to prescription stimulants, help is available: Learn more about treatment and therapy options for stimulant addiction.

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Prescription Stimulant Addiction FAQs

Why would a doctor prescribe stimulants?

A doctor will most likely prescribe stimulant medications (e.g., Adderall or Vyvanse) to treat patients with ADHD or narcolepsy. Doctors may also recommend prescription stimulants for treating Parkinson’s disease or, more rarely, to help patients lose weight.

What is the most prescribed stimulant drug?

The most prescribed stimulant drug is Adderall, as it acts quickly and can be a solution for patients with ADHD.

Who is most likely to abuse stimulant medications?

According to the NSDUH and other research data, young people—typically college students—are the most likely to abuse prescription stimulants.

Many students who misuse stimulant medication report taking them to boost their concentration and focus when studying.

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.

Can I get addicted to prescription stimulant drugs?

You can get addicted to stimulant medications (i.e., Adderall, Concerta, Ritalin, etc.). Even if you feel like you will never misuse your prescription stimulants, they are still addictive drugs that can potentially cause dependence. They act on the same part of the brain as alcohol, tobacco, and other addictive drugs.

Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. is a founder of Addiction HelpReviewed by:Kent S. Hoffman, D.O.

Chief Medical Officer & Co-Founder

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. has been an expert in addiction medicine for more than 15 years. In addition to managing a successful family medical practice, Dr. Hoffman is board certified in addiction medicine by the American Osteopathic Academy of Addiction Medicine (AOAAM). Dr. Hoffman has successfully treated hundreds of patients battling addiction. Dr. Hoffman is the Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer of and ensures the website’s medical content and messaging quality.

Jessica Miller is the Content Manager of Addiction HelpWritten by:

Editorial Director

Jessica Miller is the Editorial Director of Addiction Help. Jessica graduated from the University of South Florida (USF) with an English degree and combines her writing expertise and passion for helping others to deliver reliable information to those impacted by addiction. Informed by her personal journey to recovery and support of loved ones in sobriety, Jessica's empathetic and authentic approach resonates deeply with the Addiction Help community.

  1. Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drugs. SAMHSA. (2023, June 6).
  2. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Treatment for Stimulant Use Disorders. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 1999. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 33.) Chapter 2—How Stimulants Affect the Brain and Behavior.
  3. Compton, W. M., Han, B., Blanco, C., Johnson, K., & Jones, C. M. (2018, August 1). Prevalence and correlates of prescription stimulant use, misuse, use disorders, and motivations for misuse among adults in the United States. The American journal of psychiatry.
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2023a, January 9). Prescription Stimulants DrugFacts.
  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2023b, April 18). Treatment.
  6. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2023c, September 8). Methamphetamine.

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