Prescription stimulants are used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy.1 Though they have recognized therapeutic benefits, these legal stimulant drugs are also frequently misused for non-medical purposes. In 2019, 4.9 million Americans over 12 years old misused prescription stimulants.2
Some of the more widely known brand name prescription stimulants include:1
- Adderall (dextroamphetamine + amphetamine).
- Dexedrine (extended-release dextroamphetamine).
- Ritalin (methylphenidate).
- Concerta (extended-release methylphenidate).
Despite their legitimate medical uses, possessing or selling prescription stimulant drugs for recreational use is illegal.3 Prescription stimulants are addictive and can be especially dangerous when misused. Among the many potential adverse health effects, stimulant abuse can increase the risk of developing a substance use disorder, or addiction.1 Fortunately, a substance use disorder involving prescription stimulants is treatable, and recovery is possible.4
Stimulant Use Disorder
Different stimulant medications may be prescribed to help increase focus and attentiveness in people with ADHD and to maintain wakefulness in people with narcolepsy.1
Prescription stimulants increase activity of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. Drugs that boost dopamine levels or activity often have reinforcing or rewarding effects, which can lead to an increased risk of repeated use and/or addiction. Norepinephrine raises heart rate and blood pressure, affects breathing, blood vessels, and blood sugar.1
People abuse these drugs by taking them orally (swallowing), crushing them up and inhaling them (snorting), or dissolving them into water and injecting them.1
Signs of Stimulant Abuse
Stimulant addiction, or a stimulant use disorder, is best diagnosed by a medical professional. However, there are many different warning signs of stimulant use disorder to be mindful of. Some of these signs, symptoms, and behavioral changes include:5
- Taking a stimulant more often or in higher doses than recommended.
- Failed attempts to quit or slow down stimulant use.
- Craving stimulants.
- Needing to take more and more of the drug to feel its effects.
- Spending a great deal of time seeking stimulants at the expense of other activities and responsibilities.
- Needing an increasing amount of a stimulant drug to achieve the desired results.
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when abstaining from stimulant use.
Effects of Stimulants on the Body and Brain
Misusing stimulants at levels that exceed prescribed guidelines can increase the risk of experiencing uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous physical and cognitive effects, which can include:1
- Abdominal pain.
- Elevated blood pressure.
- Irregular heartbeat.
- Heart attack.
Stimulant Overdose Symptoms
Stimulant abuse can increase the risk of overdose and toxicity. Stimulant overdoses can be life-threatening or fatal as a result of neurological excitation and seizures, or catastrophic cardiovascular events such as arrythmia, circulation failure, and heart attack. Stimulant overdose symptoms may include:1
- Panic, confusion, and aggression.
- High fever.
- Tachypnea (rapid breathing).
- Muscle and stomach pain.
- Overactive reflexes.
Stimulant overdoses are medical emergencies. Anyone who witnesses what they suspect to be a stimulant overdose should call 9-1-1 and explain the situation.
Stimulant Withdrawal Symptoms
People can experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop using prescription stimulants, even if they are using them as prescribed.1 Common symptoms of stimulant withdrawal include:6
- Strong drug cravings.
- Insomnia or hypersomnia.
- Intense dreams.
- Dysphoric mood (that may progress to depression and associated suicidal thoughts).
- Anhedonia (or loss of interest in otherwise pleasurable activities).
- Dampened senses.
- Memory loss.
- Increased appetite.
Another significant health risk associated with prescription stimulant abuse is the risk of addiction—the most severe form of substance use disorder.1
Treatment for Prescription Stimulant Abuse
While successful treatment plans vary depending on an individual’s needs, there are several proven methods that are routinely used by effective rehabilitation facilities.
Treatment often begins with medical detoxification. Stimulant withdrawal may not be as immediately dangerous or intense as some other withdrawal syndromes (such as those associated with alcohol, sedatives, or opioids), however it can still be significantly unpleasant, and could be accompanied by dysphoria, depression and, in some cases, suicidal thoughts.6
For these reasons, detoxifying from prolonged use of stimulants may be done under medical supervision to keep a person as safe and comfortable as possible. Important elements of a professional medical detox include:7
- Evaluating the patient. This means performing a drug test, psychological assessment, physical examination, learning medical history, etc.
- Stabilizing the patient as they detoxify. Withdrawal from prescription stimulants can be unpleasant and, in some cases, may be associated with significant psychological distress. Depending on the individual, this may involve close monitoring and psychological support.
- Helping the patient continue treatment. A professionally conducted detox program provides a great opportunity to help an individual transition into additional substance rehabilitation to continue beyond the withdrawal period.
Once a patient successfully manages their stimulant withdrawal period, they are ready to continue with more comprehensive rehabilitation efforts. Treatment durations may vary depending on the level of addiction severity and other individual needs. However, studies suggest that patients may benefit from longer periods of treatment—such as 90 days or more.8
Approaches to stimulant abuse treatment may vary from one program to the next, though they often include a combination of certain therapeutic techniques, including:4
- Motivational interviewing (MI): MI usually marks the first step in therapy when a patient enters a program. MI is designed to make a patient less apathetic and more optimistic about recovery by helping them see how addiction stands between their goals and hurts their relationships.
- Contingency management (CM): CM works by attempting to rewire the reward circuits in the patient’s brain that have been damaged by stimulant abuse. Positive behaviors like showing up to meetings, taking medication, passing drug tests etc., are rewarded.
- Community reinforcement (CR): It’s important that a recovering patient builds a strong supportive social network so that they stay sober after leaving the treatment facility. CR often involves job skills training, recreational activities and relationship counseling.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT teaches patients to recognize, avoid, and overcome the triggers that make them want to use. CBT can be especially important for patients with co-occurring mental health problems.
After completing rehabilitation treatment, many people in recovery benefit from ongoing, regular participation with support groups and other aftercare programs.
Prescription Stimulant Abuse Treatment at Recovery First
Recovery First has several treatment programs and options to ensure patients’ safety and provide the necessary assistance to begin recovery and sustain sobriety. Our Admissions Navigators are waiting at 954-526-5776 24/7 to answer any questions.
What are the most common prescription stimulants?
Common prescription stimulants include:1
How do stimulants affect the body?
Stimulants accelerate the body’s systems.9 Prescription stimulants are made to treat disorders like ADHD and narcolepsy. They elicit feelings of being alert and energetic.1 Recreational use of prescriptions is dangerous and illegal. Most prescription stimulants are considered Schedule 2 Narcotics by the Drug Enforcement Administration due to the high potential for abuse.10
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). What are prescription stimulants?
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2019 national survey on drug use and health. Rockville, MD: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
- Congressional Research Service. (2015). Drug Offenses: Maximum Fines and Terms of Imprisonment for Violation of the Federal Controlled Substances Act and Related Laws.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2020). Treatment of stimulant use disorders. Rockville, MD: National Mental Health and Substance Use Policy Laboratory.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
- Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. (1999). Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 33. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
- Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. (2015). Detoxification and substance abuse treatment. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 45. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Principles of effective treatment.
- Drug Enforcement Agency. (2020). Stimulants.
- Drug Enforcement Agency. (n.d.). Drug scheduling.