Methamphetamine Addiction: Is Rehab Right for You?
Long-term methamphetamine abuse can destroy a person’s body and mind. It is very difficult to overcome methamphetamine addiction alone, but individualized treatment programs are available to help
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, there are more than 14 million Americans who have used methamphetamine at some point in their lifetime. Methamphetamine is a stimulant drug that increases the amount of dopamine in the brain, but the effects fade quickly.
Methamphetamine use is frequently characterized by a "binge and crash" pattern that amplifies the drug's addictive properties.
What is methamphetamine?
Methamphetamine is a stimulant drug usually used as a white, bitter-tasting powder or a pill. Crystal methamphetamine is a form of the drug that looks like glass fragments or shiny, bluish-white rocks. It is chemically similar to amphetamine [a drug used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy, a sleep disorder].
Other common names for methamphetamine include chalk, crank, crystal, ice, meth, and speed.
How do people use methamphetamine?
People can take methamphetamine by:
- swallowing (pill)
- injecting the powder that has been dissolved in water/alcohol
Because the "high" from the drug both starts and fades quickly, people often take repeated doses in a "binge and crash" pattern. In some cases, people take methamphetamine in a form of binging known as a "run," giving up food and sleep while continuing to take the drug every few hours for up to several days.
How does methamphetamine affect the brain?
Methamphetamine increases the amount of the natural chemical dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is involved in body movement, motivation, and reinforcement of rewarding behaviors. The drug’s ability to rapidly release high levels of dopamine in reward areas of the brain strongly reinforces drug-taking behavior, making the user want to repeat the experience.
Taking even small amounts of methamphetamine can result in many of the same health effects as those of other stimulants, such as cocaine or amphetamines. These include:
- increased wakefulness and physical activity
- decreased appetite
- faster breathing
- rapid and/or irregular heartbeat
- increased blood pressure and body temperature
How Do Manufacturers Make Methamphetamine?
Manufacturers make most of the methamphetamine found in the United States in "superlabs" here or, more often, in Mexico. But some also make the drug in small, secret labs with inexpensive over-the-counter ingredients such as pseudoephedrine, a common ingredient in cold medicines. To curb production, the law requires pharmacies and other retail stores to keep a purchase record of products containing pseudoephedrine. A person may only buy a limited amount of those products on a single day.
What are other health effects of methamphetamine?
People who inject methamphetamine are at increased risk of contracting infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis B and C. These diseases are transmitted through contact with blood or other bodily fluids. Methamphetamine use can also alter judgment and decision-making leading to risky behaviors, such as unprotected sex, which also increases the risk for infection.
Methamphetamine use may worsen the progression of HIV/AIDS and its consequences. Studies indicate that HIV causes more injury to nerve cells and more cognitive problems in people who have HIV and use methamphetamine than it does in people who have HIV and don't use the drug. Cognitive problems are those involved with thinking, understanding, learning, and remembering.
Long-term methamphetamine use has many other negative consequences, including:
- extreme weight loss
- severe dental problems ("meth mouth")
- intense itching, leading to skin sores from scratching
- sleeping problems
- violent behavior
- paranoia—extreme and unreasonable distrust of others
- hallucinations—sensations and images that seem real though they aren't
In addition, continued methamphetamine use causes changes in the brain's dopamine system that are associated with reduced coordination and impaired verbal learning. In studies of people who used methamphetamine over the long term, severe changes also affected areas of the brain involved with emotion and memory. This may explain many of the emotional and cognitive problems observed in those who use methamphetamine.
Although some of these brain changes may reverse after being off the drug for a year or more, other changes may not recover even after a long period of abstinence. A recent study even suggests that people who used methamphetamine have an increased the risk of developing Parkinson's disease, a disorder of the nerves that affect movement.
Are there health effects from exposure to secondhand methamphetamine smoke?
Researchers don't yet know whether people breathing in secondhand methamphetamine smoke can get high or have other health effects. What they do know is that people can test positive for methamphetamine after exposure to secondhand smoke. More research is needed in this area.
Can a person overdose on methamphetamine?
Yes, a person can overdose on methamphetamine. An overdose occurs when the person uses too much of a drug and has a toxic reaction that results in serious, harmful symptoms or death.
Methamphetamine overdose can lead to stroke, heart attack, or organ problems—such as kidney failure—caused by overheating. These conditions can result in death.
How can a methamphetamine overdose be treated?
Because methamphetamine overdose often leads to a stroke, heart attack, or organ problems, first responders and emergency room doctors try to treat the overdose by treating these conditions, with the intent of:
- restoring blood flow to the affected part of the brain (stroke)
- restoring blood flow to the heart (heart attack)
- treating the organ problems
Is methamphetamine addictive?
Yes, methamphetamine is highly addictive. When people stop taking it, withdrawal symptoms can include:
- severe depression
- intense drug cravings
Signs And Symptoms Of Methamphetamine Abuse
There are some signs and symptoms that may indicate someone is abusing methamphetamine. Due to the way meth interacts with the brain, there are both immediate effects and delayed effects which may be experienced by any person who abuses the drug.
Signs that someone is under the influence of meth can include:
- euphoria and energy spike
- increased physical activity
- increased blood pressure and breathing rate
- dangerously high body temperature
- loss of appetite
- unpredictable behavior
- performing repetitive, meaningless tasks
- dilated pupils
- heavy sweating
- nausea, vomiting and diarrhea
- dry mouth
- seizures and potentially death
Long-term effects of methamphetamine abuse can appear during or after use. These effects may include:
- brain damage similar to Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease
- high blood pressure
- prolonged episodes of anxiety, paranoia and insomnia
- psychotic behavior, violence, auditory hallucinations and delusions
- homicidal or suicidal thoughts
- weakened immune system
- cracked teeth
- sores, skin infections and acne
- stroke, heart attack, lung disease, kidney damage and liver damage
- increased chance of risky behaviors
If someone is behaving in an abnormal way, they may be suffering from a methamphetamine substance use disorder. Chronic use of meth may also cause individuals to display poor personal hygiene, a pale, unhealthy complexion and sores on their bodies from picking at ‘crack bugs’—a common tactile hallucination which some people may experience if they have an extended reaction to the drug.
Another indicator is badly cracked teeth, which could be a result of tight jaw-clenching while under the influence of meth.
People who are abusing meth for the first time may not experience most or any of these symptoms. The high they experience will cause them to be very active, hyper-alert and euphoric between six to 12 hours after use. The first high is often the most pleasurable, which can compel people to seek the same experience as their first high, and may quickly result in an addiction.
Dangers Of Methamphetamine Abuse
In addition to being physically addictive, methamphetamine can also be highly psychologically addictive. While under the influence of meth, some people may experience bursts of energy, talkativeness and excitement.
The most dangerous effect of methamphetamine abuse may happen when someone has not been able to sleep for three to 15 days and becomes irritable and paranoid. This behavior is referred to as “tweaking.”
In this excited state, people are able to go for hours, even days, without wanting sleep or food. People who are tweaking also crave more methamphetamine, but find it difficult to achieve the original high.
This can cause the individual to become irritated and act in unstable and unpredictable ways. Due to the unpredictability of their behavior, people who tweak have an increased risk of participating in domestic disputes, impulsive crimes and car accidents.
Chronic, large doses of methamphetamine have also been associated with increased nervousness, irritability, paranoia, and sometimes violent behavior. Withdrawing from high doses of meth generally ends in severe depression.
Psychosis similar to Schizophrenia is another symptom of chronic meth abuse. It is displayed by symptoms like paranoia, picking at the skin, self-absorption, auditory and visual hallucinations and occasional episodes of violence.
It is also possible for someone to overdose on meth. An overdose happens when someone has absorbed too much methamphetamine for their body to process at one time, causing a toxic reaction that may result in serious, potentially lethal symptoms or death. Symptoms of methamphetamine overdose can include stroke, heart attack and damage to internal organs.
How Methamphetamine Affects The Brain
Methamphetamine is a strong psychomotor stimulant that mimics the actions of certain chemicals in the brain, which influence mood and movement. The drug causes a release of dopamine and serotonin, which are responsible for the euphoric effects felt after abusing it.
After the initial rush wears off, the brain remains at a high level of alertness, keeping the individual’s body on edge. Once the drug has completely worn off, the brain becomes depleted of dopamine and serotonin, which commonly results in a depressed state.
Methamphetamine can be very addictive because the highs are very pleasing and the lows are barely tolerable. Once a tolerance to methamphetamine develops, larger and more frequent doses will be needed to achieve the same level of effects that a smaller dose once did. With repeated misuse, meth can be toxic to the brain and cause permanent damage to brain cells.
Continued meth abuse causes changes to the brain’s reward structure. These changes are a result of the damage caused by the chemical reaction between meth and brain tissues. People who abuse meth for a prolonged period of time also have severe changes to the parts of the brain involved with emotion and memory.
This may explain some emotional and cognitive problems seen in those who abused methamphetamine later on in life. Even though some of the changes to the brain may be reversed after stopping the drug for a year or more, in some cases, changes to the brain may never heal, even after a long period of no longer using.
How Methamphetamine Abuse Affects The Body
Meth abuse causes the destruction of tissues and blood vessels by hindering the body’s ability to repair itself. With chronic meth use, people can develop acne or sores that take a long time to heal, and their skin loses its luster and elasticity. This can make people who suffer from addiction to meth look years, even decades, older than they actually are.
Loss of appetite is another common side effect of meth abuse and can lead to poor diet and malnutrition. Grinding teeth and major tooth decay can also be a sign of meth abuse.
It is possible for individuals suffering from addiction to methamphetamines to experience co-occurring disorders. These typically come in the form of an undertreated or undiagnosed mental health disorder, which can include:
- depressive disorders
- anxiety disorders
- bipolar disorders
- conduct disorders
- antisocial personality disorder
It is important that all symptoms experienced are discussed with a medical health professional. If someone enters treatment with an undiagnosed mental health disorder, which remains undiagnosed, their chances of relapsing may increase because the root cause of their addictive behavior has not been appropriately addressed.
How can people get treatment for methamphetamine addiction?
The most effective treatments for methamphetamine addiction so far are behavioral therapies, such as:
- cognitive-behavioral therapy, which helps patients recognize, avoid, and cope with the situations in which they are most likely to use drugs
- motivational incentives, which uses vouchers or small cash rewards to encourage patients to remain drug-free
While research is under way, there are currently no government-approved medications to treat methamphetamine addiction.
Points to Remember
- Methamphetamine is usually a white, bitter-tasting powder or a pill. Crystal methamphetamine looks like glass fragments or shiny, bluish-white rocks.
- Methamphetamine is a stimulant drug that is chemically similar to amphetamine (a drug used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy).
- People can take methamphetamine by inhaling/smoking, swallowing, snorting, or injecting the drug.
- Methamphetamine increases the amount of dopamine in the brain, which is involved in the movement, motivation, and reinforcement of rewarding behaviors.
- Short-term health effects include increased wakefulness and physical activity, decreased appetite, and increased blood pressure and body temperature.
- Long-term health effects include risk of contracting HIV and hepatitis; severe dental problems ("meth mouth"); intense itching, leading to skin sores from scratching; violent behavior; and paranoia.
- Researchers don't yet know whether people breathing in secondhand methamphetamine smoke can get high or have other health effects.
- A person can overdose on methamphetamine. Because methamphetamine overdose often leads to a stroke, heart attack, or organ problems, first responders and emergency room doctors try to treat the overdose by treating these conditions.
- Methamphetamine is highly addictive. When people stop taking it, withdrawal symptoms can include anxiety, fatigue, severe depression, psychosis, and intense drug cravings.
- The most effective treatments for methamphetamine addiction so far are behavioral therapies. There are currently no government-approved medications to treat methamphetamine addiction.
Inpatient Centers vs. Outpatient Clinics
If the patient has a serious or long-term addiction, inpatient treatment is recommended. Inpatient treatment requires the recovering individual to live at the methamphetamine treatment center for a period of time. While in residential treatment, the patient will receive therapy, group counseling and other programs designed to facilitate recovery. An outpatient program is recommended for those with less serious dependency issues. The patient is able to undergo treatment during the day and then return to their home at the end of the day.
Do I Need a Residential Rehab Facility?
You may benefit from a methamphetamine residential rehab center if you are exhibiting any of the following symptoms:
- Compulsive, drug-seeking behaviors, such as stealing in order to buy more methamphetamine.
- Feeling physically ill when not using methamphetamine.
- Continuing to use the drug despite negative effects such as hallucinations, rotting teeth, or insomnia.
- Continuing to use the drug despite difficulties experienced at work, school, or in personal relationships.
Use vs. Abuse vs. Methamphetamine Addiction
If the medication is being used exactly as prescribed by a medical professional, the patient is likely not dependent. Abuse is characterized by using the drug in a way other than intended. This includes taking larger doses than recommended and using the medication after the prescribed period has ended. Addiction occurs when the individual is unable to stop using methamphetamines without experiencing physical or withdrawal symptoms.
Tolerance vs. Methamphetamine Dependence
Tolerance occurs when an individual's body becomes used to the effects of a drug. Tolerance can lead to dependence. This happens because the patient needs higher doses of the drug in order to achieve the desired result. Eventually, the user's body cannot function normally without the medication, and he or she becomes addicted.
Are Methamphetamine Rehabs Private and Confidential?
Federal laws are in place to protect a recovering individual's privacy. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, patient consent is required for the disclosure of records, with a few exceptions. While each methamphetamine rehab center is different, each values the privacy of their patients.
How Long Does Inpatient Methamphetamine Rehabilitation Last?
Each recovering individual has options. While most patients choose to stay at a methamphetamine treatment center for a period of one month, others feel the need to stay longer. In addition to the 28- to 30-day option, patients can also choose a 60-day program. This is appropriate for those with a more serious dependency issue. For those who have been living with addiction for a long period of time, a 90-day stay may be the best choice. In some cases, patients can stay longer. It is up to each recovering individual, their loved ones and trained professionals to determine the course that is best.
What Happens During Treatment?
Treatment at a methamphetamine rehab center takes place in a caring and supportive environment. The patient first undergoes routine medical testing and completes some forms. The next step is the detoxification process, where the drug is slowly weaned from the patient's body. Once detox is complete, the individual will attend addiction therapy sessions. During these sessions, the patient will learn the causes of addiction and new behaviors to replace their addictive behaviors. Some individuals will learn coping skills and ways to relax. Once treatment has been completed successfully, most facilities offer aftercare programs that help the patient continue his or her success.
"One thing is certain: No inpatient marijuana rehab centers are going to achieve lasting success until you are ready to get treatment and live a life of sobriety."
Should I Travel or Stay Near Home?
Where to attend treatment is a personal decision. Some methamphetamine rehabilitation facilities are close to home. These can be a convenient option for those who wish for family and other loved ones to be a part of their recovery. Others may benefit from attending a facility away from environmental stressors that can contribute to their drug use.
What Happens After?
After treatment, the patient is equipped to live a sober life. Since additional support is often needed, many methamphetamine rehab centers offer follow-up care. The recovered individual can attend therapy and group sessions and mentor dependent individuals.
You May Want to Learn More About:
- Interventions. An individual can be persuaded to seek help from a methamphetamine rehab center. An intervention can be staged with the help of a trained specialist. The dependent loved one is lovingly confronted with his or her addictive behavior and urged to seek assistance.
- Assessment/intake. The intake process is similar to the admittance procedure in a hospital. The patient undergoes some medical evaluations and completes the necessary paperwork for admittance to the program.
- Detox and withdrawal from methamphetamines. The detoxification process is done gradually to help ease the physical symptoms. While withdrawal can be unpleasant, caring staff members at a methamphetamine rehab center can make the patient as comfortable as possible during the process.
- Inpatient vs. outpatient care. Deciding between inpatient and outpatient treatment options is a personal decision. The patient and his or her loved ones can discuss the options with a treatment specialist.
- Treatment methods. Each individual is different. That is why a variety of treatment options are available. Traditional therapies such as cognitive behavior therapy, 12-step programs, group sessions, and educational classes are offered at most facilities. Holistic approaches that include yoga, meditation and acupuncture are also available.
- Sober living. Living sober is possible. Methamphetamine rehab centers give patients the tools they need to remain sober in the long term.
- Aftercare/recovery. Aftercare programs are designed to be supportive and provide additional support to the recovered individual as needed.
Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (2017). Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Rockville, MD.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). What is methamphetamine?
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.