Meth Addiction, Symptoms and Treatment Information
Crystal Meth: Signs of Addiction and Treatment Options
This past summer, NBC News reported that crystal meth use in the United States has been “rising in the shadow of the opioid epidemic,” creating “twin plagues” that take thousands of lives each year. The number of deaths related to methamphetamine overdose more than doubled in the five years from 2010 to 2015 (the most recent dataset available). In just one year, from 2014 to 2015, deaths rose from 3,700 to 4,500 – an increase of 30%, and the highest numbers reported since 2005.
What’s more, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s annual survey on drug use (commonly known as the NSDUH), the number of people aged 12 or older who reported abusing either prescription or illegal methamphetamine in 2014 was 569,000. The following year, the agency began measuring illicitly manufactured methamphetamine abuse separately from prescription drug abuse, and the number of current meth users skyrocketed to 897,000.
To better understand the consequences of crystal meth abuse and why it is important to seek treatment, it helps to understand where the drug comes from, how it affects the human brain and body, and the havoc it wreaks on the lives of its users, their families, and whole communities.
Methamphetamine is a man-made stimulant that comes in pill or powdered form, and has a long history of worldwide. The original form of the drug, amphetamine, was synthesized in Germany in the 1880’s, but was modified by Japanese manufacturers who discovered methamphetamine in 1919. In World War II, it was administered to soldiers in the trenches as well as Kamikaze pilots before their missions.
The most powerful form of the drug is d-methamphetamine. It comes as a powder or pill and can be swallowed, smoked, snorted, or dissolved in a liquid and injected. In post-war U.S., d-methamphetamine was medically approved to treat depression and as a weight loss aid. However, its stimulating and euphoric effects quickly attracted users wishing to:
- Stay awake for long periods,
- Study or ‘cram’ for test
- Improve their libido,
- Feel more confident, or
- Increase strength and energy
Abuse rates peaked in the 1960’s, leading to its criminalization for most uses under the Comprehensive Drug Abuse and Control Act in 1971. Today, it is still FDA-approved and available by prescription to treat ADHD (Ritalin, Adderol), and obesity (Desoxyn).
Prescription versions of methamphetamine like are just as addictive as their street counterparts, and perhaps even more insidious because people assume prescription drugs are safer. Teenagers and young children are prescribed amphetamines for ADHD and their brains become chemically dependent on the drug before they reach adulthood, often leading to substance abuse later in life.
Crystal meth is a colorless, odorless form of methamphetamine that is made with pseudoephedrine and looks like glass fragments or shiny, bluish-white rocks. Its manufacture in clandestine ‘superlabs’ rose in response to regulation, leading to mass production and widespread use. In the early 2000s, production in the U.S. was localized but rampant; meth-related emergency room visits peaked in 2004 at over 132,000, leading the government to pass the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act in 2006. The law restricted the sale of pseudoephedrine-containing cold medicines, and the number of American meth labs, users, and overdoses began to drop.
However, this only made room for Mexican cartels to step into the vacuum left by American producers. New superlabs popped up on both sides of the border and throughout the American Southwest, saturating the market with greater quantities at higher purity levels than ever before. At the same time, one DEA agent told NBC, the cartels eliminated competition by blocking Colombia out of the American cocaine market, causing many coke users to turn to meth as an alternative stimulant.
According to the Justice Department, the higher purity level associated with crystal meth is what makes it more popular among users than its powdered counterpart – but also more dangerous.
When smoked or injected, crystal meth creates an intense and near-instantaneous high because it floods the brain’s pleasure centers with dopamine. This initial intensity wears off after about 30 minutes, but the drug’s euphoric effects can last anywhere from six to 12 hours. However, meth also produces extreme highs in heart rate and body temperature, putting users at immediate risk of stroke, brain damage, and death.
Neurotransmitters are a type of molecule which send messages to the brain by pairing with designated receptors. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which affects the parts of the brain that regulate pleasure, body movement, motivation, and reward systems. Lab studies have found that the powerful dopamine release caused by crystal meth is hundreds of times greater than that associated with eating, sex, or even other stimulants, including cocaine.
Along with euphoria and pleasure, the effects of a crystal meth high include increased energy, motivation, and alertness; frenzied movement or activity; suppressed appetite; lowered inhibitions; and feelings of superior intelligence and desirability.
Over time, the constant release of feel-good chemicals burns out the dopamine receptors in the brain, rewiring its reward system to demand the addictive substance above all else. Users binge on the drug for days at a time without sleeping or eating. Tolerance for meth builds quickly in the body, requiring higher and higher doses for a user to get the same rush. Side-effects of extended use include convulsions, teeth grinding, phantom itching, irrational or violent behavior, paranoia, and hallucinations.
Meth’s long-term consequences can be even more devastating, ranging from dysfunctional living patterns, to liver damage, to permanent tissue and blood vessel damage. Abuse of the drug also destroys the immune system, lowering users’ ability to fight illness and infection, and making them more susceptible to HIV. Other physiological symptoms include “meth mouth” – extreme tooth decay due to grinding and poor hygiene; open sores on the skin, caused by excessive scratching or picking at imagined insects; and reduced cognitive and motor function, at least some of which is irreversible.
The lifelong and life-threatening consequences of crystal meth addiction make it critical for users to seek treatment as soon as possible. One of the greatest barriers to treatment is methamphetamine withdrawal, marked by severe depression or dysphoria, insomnia, intense cravings, anxiety, and psychosis. Other symptoms may include:
- Vivid, or “lucid,” dreams
- Suicidal thoughts and/or actions
Just as there is no known medication to treat a meth overdose, there are currently no drugs to treat meth abuse (compared to naloxone and methadone for opioid dependence). However, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that a few experimental treatments are undergoing clinical trials.
One of these trial drugs, AV411 or ibudilast, suppresses the actions of certain cells and is shown to inhibit the self-administration of methamphetamine in rats, with human trials forthcoming. Other research studies aim to utilize antimethamphetamine antibodies, such as mAb7F9, or a type of vaccine that would stimulate their growth when injected, in order to “neutralize the drug in the bloodstream before it reaches the brain.” These treatments are likely years away, but if proven effective would save thousands of lives.
In the meantime, behavioral therapies are the most common strategy for treating meth addiction. When seeking treatment, patients will undergo medical detox, usually followed by treatment at an inpatient facility. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) works by identifying and restructuring the dysfunctional thought patterns and triggers that lead to abuse.
The most effective outpatient treatment plans combine elements of CBT with individual and family counseling, 12-step support, and contingency-management interventions, which provide incentives for patients to adhere to treatment goals and abstain from drug use.