Abusing Ritalin for performance enhancement, weight loss, and recreation has been increasing among high school and college students, but this prescription medication can be extremely helpful for ADHD when used properly. Get the facts about Ritalin misuse and understand what can be done if someone becomes addicted to this stimulant drug.
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What Is Ritalin?
Ritalin is the brand name of a prescription stimulant known as Methylphenidate and is used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It’s also used to treat narcolepsy and has been given to patients for other conditions. Ritalin comes in short-acting and long-acting forms and is taken by mouth.
This Schedule II drug works by increasing the amount of dopamine in the brain, which increases drive and focus. Ritalin also affects heart rate, blood flow, and blood pressure. Low doses of Ritalin are used for ADHD, while higher doses are used to treat narcolepsy.
Ritalin Side Effects
Ritalin belongs to the family of medications known as central nervous system stimulants, or Methylphenidates (Ritalin, Concerta). This classification of drugs has similar effects and pharmacological uses to Amphetamines (Adderall).
Because Ritalin works by crossing the blood-brain barrier and interfering with the reuptake of synaptic norepinephrine, dopamine, or both, it produces many effects.
“Studies to date suggest that prescribed use of methylphenidate in patients with ADHD does not increase their risk for subsequent addiction. However non-medical use of methylphenidate and other stimulant medications can lead to addiction as well as a variety of other health consequences.”
—Dr. Nora Volkow, NIDA Director
Short-Term Side Effects of Ritalin Use
- Loss of appetite
- Changes in blood pressure
- Chest pain
- Addiction or substance use disorder
Long-Term Side Effects of Ritalin Use
- Visual hallucinations
- Eyesight changes
- High blood pressure
- Skin infection
- Blurred vision
- Paranoia or psychosis
- Viral infection
- Urinary tract infection
- Addiction or substance use disorder
When a person takes Ritalin for a condition they do not have, the side effects of the drug can be even more intense. For example, people with mood disorders like Bipolar Disorder may show even worse symptoms of their condition since Ritalin might trigger panic attacks or manic episodes in certain people.
Ritalin Abuse and Addiction
Ritalin abuse can occur when a person with no medical need for Ritalin starts taking this drug, or if someone with a medical need starts taking Ritalin in high doses beyond their doctor’s recommendation.
Ritalin addiction can manifest after months or even years of taking this medication. It is considered to be a controlled substance by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) due to its high potential for abuse.
Ritalin is most commonly abused among young adults, and abuse for weight loss is an increasing problem. Taking Ritalin illegally often involves crushing tablets and snorting the powder, or dissolving the powder in water and then injecting it.
Ritalin is also frequently abused by housewives who sometimes take their childrens’ Ritalin for energy or weight loss purposes.
People who feel unable to stop taking Ritalin, or who have become dependent on the drug, should talk with their doctors about the potential risks of continued use. They may be able to switch to less risky medications or simply reduce the dosage over time to wean themselves from Ritalin addiction.
Some signs of Ritalin abuse may include:
- Faking symptoms to get more doses
- Taking larger doses than prescribed
- Seeing different doctors in order to get more Ritalin prescriptions
- Taking Ritalin frequently or for an extended time than prescribed (remember Ritalin is prescribed for short term use)
- “Losing” prescription pills
Am I Addicted to Ritalin?
The immediate effects experienced by users are the result of the drug interacting with receptors in the brain that process dopamine. As it turns out, Ritalin works very similar to cocaine and other illicit drugs that target the reward system.
When these drugs are used just as prescribed, doctors report that they help patients manage symptoms. However, even when used correctly, individuals can become physically dependent on these drugs. In fact, just like other stimulant abuse, people may become addicted to the high they experience after taking Ritalin.
Furthermore, from a functional perspective, addiction occurs by way of a person’s inability to control their use of a substance.
If you have a friend or family member that has been taking Ritalin for a prolonged period, look for these signs of Ritalin addiction:
- Continuing use even when you want to quit
- Experiencing cravings for the medication
- Spending too much time using Ritalin
- Taking the drug in larger amounts than prescribed
- Needing higher doses to achieve the same effect
- Giving up on your occupational, social, and recreational activities to take the drug
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms
- Mood swing when you don’t take the drugs
- Neglecting responsibilities and isolating from friends and family
When you discontinue Ritalin abuse, the stimulant that kept your brain on high alert begins to leave your system. This results in withdrawal symptoms, which will be dependent on how long you used the drug for and at what dosage. Symptoms range from mild to intense, but all are temporary.
Some of the symptoms you can expect include:
- Loss of focus
- Mood swings
- Sleep interruptions
- Change in heart rate
- Fluctuations in blood pressure
In some cases, people addicted to Ritalin might experience severe depression which leads to the inability to feel pleasure. And although this might be temporary, it might lead to suicidal thoughts. For this reason, doctors advise quitting Ritalin under medical attention.
When it is swallowed or taken intravenously, Ritalin and other stimulants can cause overdose if the amount of the drug exceeds what is needed by the body at that time. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports a steady increase in ER visits as a result of severe reactions to overdosing on ADHD medicine, namely Adderall, Ritalin, and Concerta.
The Adderall usage rate is about 76% among stimulant abusers. Ritalin is approximately 24.5% by stimulant abusers. This means Adderall is abused roughly 3x more than Ritalin. Adderall abuse commonly spikes around the time of college exams, as college students begin filling so many scripts at once that local pharmacies begin running out of their Adderall supply.
Moreover, a Ritalin overdose can become fatal which is why understanding the symptoms of Ritalin overdose might help you save someone’s life.
Any person that experiences Ritalin overdose may exhibit the following symptoms:
- Abdominal cramps
- Muscle pain or weakness
- Muscle twitching
- Overactive reflexes
Ritalin abuse leads to a lot of strain on the individual’s heart and cardiovascular system. In extreme cases of overdose, abuse of this prescription drug might lead to a heart attack, cardiac arrhythmias, very high or very low blood pressure, and blood circulation failure.
If you suspect an overdose of Ritalin, call 911 to report the overdose and stay with them until help arrives. The victim may experience a high fever, so you can keep the person cool and make sure they hydrate. In the event of a seizure, loosen any restrictive clothing and help roll the person over to their side to facilitate breathing and prevent choking.
Ritalin Addiction Treatment
Addiction to Ritalin is uncommon for those taking the drug as directed to treat ADHD or narcolepsy. However, abusing Ritalin has a strong likelihood of resulting in addiction.
Treatment for Ritalin addiction can involve many aspects, including psychological counseling and behavioral therapy, to help the patient heal both on a psychological level and physical level. Depending on the severity of the addiction, treatment for Ritalin abuse may last one day to several months.
Deciding to get off Ritalin is an important one because it can help you improve your life in ways you never thought possible. When you’re addicted to prescription drugs, withdrawing from them can be very expensive and require medical assistance.
Should you choose to detox, it is advised that you seek medical attention and perform a Ritalin detox under the supervision and with medical supervision to avoid any serious complications as the drug exists your system.
Ritalin Treatment Programs
After your body rids itself of Ritalin, the next step in the process will be seeking a treatment program to aid you in maintaining your abstinence from this drug. There are multiple options available depending on the severity of your addiction as well as your personal lifestyle.
These options may include:
Inpatient Rehab Program
In an inpatient rehab program, you live at the treatment center during your detox and rehabilitation process.
Most inpatient programs include assessment, orientation, medical care management, medication supervision, counseling, and psychotherapeutic services; AA/NA meetings; recreational, social, and family activities, and much more.
Partial Hospitalization Program
The Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP) is designed for individuals who need more intensive care than what can be provided by an outpatient program, but do not need to go away from their home and job permanently.
During this inpatient program, you will live at home and spend at least part of every day attending the center.
Intensive Outpatient Program
The Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) for Ritalin addiction is set up for people who want to stop using methamphetamines and do not need hospitalization or detoxification, but do need extensive medical and psychiatric intervention.
It is also a great treatment option after initial detoxification and an inpatient treatment program.
A 2016 survey revealed that more than 6 million children were diagnosed with ADHD, a condition frequently treated using Ritalin.
According to SAMHSA, around 2 million Americans aged 12+ admitted to abuse of prescription drugs like Ritalin in 2016.
Additionally, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that more than half of students who abuse Ritalin (or another prescription drug) acquired it from a friend or family member.
Is Your Loved One Addicted to Ritalin? You Aren’t Alone.
When it comes to addiction, there are usually more people involved than just the addict. Getting help and support for your loved one is just one step in the process of addiction recovery. What about your needs?
The fact is that addiction can have a strong negative impact on the family and friends of the addict. Whether your loved one is seeking treatment for their addiction or not, there are a variety of resources available to help you feel supported during this difficult time.
In-person groups such as AlAnon as well as online forums and meeting spaces are all designed to provide the loved ones of addicts with a space to help them process their grief, frustration, confusion, worry, and stress in a non-judgemental, compassionate environment.