Ritalin Addiction: Abuse Signs, Effects & Treatment

What to Know About Ritalin Addiction Treatment

What Is Ritalin?

Ritalin, or methylphenidate, is prescribed for people who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It is used to help children dealing with this condition focus and feel calmer. While it is not advised for those under 6 years old, for older children, it can make a big difference in how they perform academically and socially.

Ritalin Addiction Treatment

Ironically, when prescribed for adults, Ritalin is a stimulant. In fact, it is used to treat adults with narcolepsy.
Methylphenidate was first created in a laboratory in 1944. It started to be prescribed as Ritalin during the 1950s. Originally it was used mainly for adults suffering from chronic fatigue, depression, and narcolepsy. Currently, it continues to be used off-label to help fight depression among cancer patients and the elderly, as well as being prescribed for ADHD. The dosage is anywhere from 10 to 60mg per day and some children who take it for their ADHD will continue to take it into adulthood.

How Ritalin Works

One study has shown that while drugs such as Ritalin do help students increase their focus, they do so in an indirect manner. These drugs enhance cognitive or intellectual motivation. The person taking the drug perceives a heightened benefit to completing a challenging task while the costs of the task seem to be less.

Ritalin increases the release of dopamine in the part of the brain that is responsible for motivation, cognition, and action. Dopamine is used by the brain to send signals between neurons. When dopamine levels are elevated, studies have demonstrated that people, as well as lab animals such as rats, have an increased ability to stay focused on tasks, even physically demanding ones. They seem more motivated to do so.

In one experiment, those with lower dopamine levels were more focused on avoiding hard intellectual work while those that had higher dopamine levels were willing to try a more daunting task. The cause of the elevated levels of the chemical were irrelevant: The same results were seen whether the higher dopamine was due to a drug or the person’s natural physiology.
It is obvious that the way Ritalin and other drugs of this category work is by changing the amounts of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a natural substance, so Ritalin is merely enhancing what is already present.

When used properly, Ritalin helps those with ADHD to better pay attention. Children who are correctly prescribed the drug find that they do better in school and also in their social lives. They are better organized, have improved listening skills, and they are better able to avoid behavioral issues.

Ritalin has become the main drug used to treat ADHD in children for these reasons, and it has been used for this purpose since the 1950s. ADHD is a condition that affects about 10% of school-aged children, according to the organization Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD).

Ritalin can also be used to help with depression, brain injuries, cancer, narcolepsy, HIV, and cognitive disorders. It is sometimes used for treatment of pain as well.

Side effects for those who use Ritalin as prescribed are mild. The user may experience insomnia, stomach pain, headaches, and weight loss. These side effects can be managed. As long as the drug is being used as prescribed, there are few serious side effects. However, this changes when the drug is abused.

Ritalin Abuse

Unfortunately, Ritalin can be addictive. Because it is so prevalent in society, people can get it without medical supervision. For those using it recreationally instead of under a doctor’s care, it is often taken in powdered form which increases the harm it can do.

Because of the way Ritalin affects brain functioning, it is easy for someone to become addicted to the drug. It is classified as a Schedule II controlled substance. As many as 20% of college students without a prescription use Ritalin or a similar stimulant as a study aid or recreational drug. Unfortunately, the more often students take these chemicals, the greater the likelihood of addiction.

One popular method for taking these drugs is to crush the tablets and snort the powder.
If someone becomes dependent on the medication, he or she should enroll in a supervised program. Unfortunately, there aren’t any medications that have been approved for helping in this situation. Instead, a program of tapering is recommended, as well as therapy and group sessions.

The brain of someone dependent on Ritalin has been damaged. The person dealing with addiction needs to take the time to allow his or her brain to heal. This will gradually reduce addictive impulses.

In terms of substances that are used and abused, prescription drugs are second only to marijuana, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Of these abused prescription drugs, one of the more commonly abused ones is Ritalin. It has been linked to addictive episodes not only in the United States but worldwide.

On the one hand, this medication has helped many individuals with mental disorders. People who suffer from ADHD can have a difficult time functioning in society because of the way their brains are wired. The condition makes it hard for people to communicate and to focus, which makes holding down a job, paying attention to tasks, and personal relationships tricky.

Researchers suspect that the frontal lobe of those with ADHD may develop later than it does in most people.
While a stimulant like Ritalin would be assumed to make the issues worse for those with ADHD, instead it makes their lives easier. They feel more collected and calmer. It helps them to focus on what is really important while they tune out distractions.

Ritalin Use Needs to Be Monitored

When a doctor prescribes Ritalin, he or she should also provide the client with ongoing guidance and regular monitoring. A program of comprehensive therapy is also important.

This is so the child can learn for him or herself how to use their brains to manage impulse control. Ritalin is just one component of a more comprehensive program. The goal is for the individual to gradually become more in control of behaviors so that Ritalin can be tapered off. If these procedures are not followed, problems can result.

Ritalin is sometimes abused by people who do not have ADHD. Because these individuals do not have the condition that is treated by the medication, it will have a different effect on them. Instead of easing a medical condition, it will act like a typical stimulant. People will find they have more energy and can handle even the most tedious tasks easily. Since Ritalin can also affect the brain’s pleasure pathways, there may also be feelings of well-being and even euphoria.

How Dependence Develops

This is a serious problem because it leads to dependence. Over time, the brain loses the ability to respond properly to things that used to give pleasure. Only the drug, Ritalin, will give people that sense of happiness. Because people want to feel good and they can no longer get that feeling naturally, they will continue to use Ritalin. But they may need higher and higher doses to get the same effects.

The risks involved in the abuse of Ritalin include:

• Paranoia
• High Blood Pressure
• Sleep disorders
• Irregular heartbeat
• Seizures
• Death

Those with Ritalin use disorder have altered brain chemistry. Their brains no longer work correctly without the stimulant. There is no way to undo this damage to the brain through medication. The only solution is time and care. Fortunately, there are tapering programs available that can help restore those suffering from addiction to a more normal and healthy life.

Signs of Ritalin Abuse

You or a loved one may be struggling with Ritalin dependence if they are letting work, school, and personal responsibilities slide while they focus on getting, using, and recovering from Ritalin. They may be avoiding activities they used to enjoy. They require larger and larger doses. And they experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop taking the drug or wait too long before taking it.

Signs of Ritalin Withdrawal

If the person has ADHD, they are under medical supervision and if the individual stops taking it, he or she may experience a return of ADHD symptoms. The solution is to work with medical professionals to determine the proper dosage as well as when and how to taper off the drug.

Those who never had ADHD and used Ritalin as a stimulant could become depressed if they stop taking the drug. This is because Ritalin affected the brain’s production of dopamine. Without it, depression ensues. Fatigue and disrupted sleep cycles may also occur.

It is critical that someone going through withdrawal is supervised and has any medical care they need available. This is because the depression could lead to suicidal thoughts. It is crucial that the client understands that the distress they feel is temporary and that over time and with counseling and a variety of therapies, he or she can attain a more normal life.

Ritalin Addiction Treatment Programs

Fortunately, many programs are available to help those who face the challenge of Ritalin addiction. A tapering approach is used initially. A medical team determines the amount per day that the client is taking and then gradually drops that amount over time. Some individuals can taper off Ritalin in days, while others need weeks.

Other treatment options include therapy that helps clients “unlearn” habits they have developed while abusing Ritalin. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is one methodology that has shown great promise. It helps individuals to understand what sparks their craving for Ritalin. They learn the early warning signs they need to be aware of that can trigger the use of the drug. Skills are developed to help overcome the tendency towards abuse. Individuals learn how to better facilitate their own healing and manage their own moods.

One research study suggests that programs for those addicted to stimulants should last for at least 90 days and may continue for up to six months. If someone does not have an adequate support network at home or has underlying mental health conditions, then it may take longer for the person to achieve sobriety.

Maintaining Sobriety

Completing a formal treatment program is just the beginning. However, for those willing to commit to continuing to practice good habits, there is hope. Local support groups and clinical follow-ups can help. The longer a client remains sober, the more they will heal. A productive and happy life is possible after treatment.

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Reviewed By:

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis completed medical school at The University of Mississippi Medical Center and residency in general psychiatry in 2003. He completed a fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 2005. Following this, he served as Chief Medical Officer for 10 years of Brentwood Behavioral Healthcare a private health system including a 105-bed hospital, residential treatment, and intensive outpatient services.

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