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Methylphenidate Abuse, Addiction, and Treatment Options

Medically reviewed by

Jennifer Cousineau MSCP, LPCI, NCC

March 29, 2019

Methylphenidate abuse has become more common, especially among young adults. This highly addictive drug is is used to treat conditions that have symptoms of excessive fatigue, inability to focus, or extreme tiredness.

Understanding Methylphenidate

Methylphenidate is classified as a central nervous system (CNS) stimulant. These types of medications affect the body in ways that are similar to other amphetamines. They work by speeding up physical and mental processes. This leads to increased energy, improved attention, increased blood pressure, elevated heart and breathing rates.

The exact way that methylphenidate works in the brain isn’t completely clear. What scientists believe is that methylphenidate increases levels of chemicals in the brain that create motivation and stimulation. This includes dopamine and serotonin, which can result in an increase in euphoria and cause the person to “feel good”, and can lead to abuse, and later, addiction.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) places methylphenidate as a Schedule II Substance due to the high potential for abuse, and therefore increased risk for severe dependence and addiction, both physical and psychological.

Other prescription medications that are in the same classification include Vicodin, methadone, fentanyl, and Adderall, among other drugs, including cocaine.

What Is Methylphenidate Prescribed For?

Methylphenidate is a stimulant prescription medication used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. Methylphenidate increases ability to focus, reduce appetite, and an increase in attentiveness, which is why it is referred to as the “study drug”.

As with many prescription medications that have high risk for abuse, the more methylphenidate prescriptions that are written, the rate of abuse also increases.

Medications That Contain Methylphenidate

Methylphenidate is active ingredient in a number of brand name medications. Many of these medications are created in a way that attempts to decrease likelihood of abuse, and extend the length of time the medication is active in the body (indicated by the ER, XR, LA and SR).

The following is a list of medications that contain methylphenidate (all are pill form unless otherwise noted):

  • Daytrana (transdermal patch)
  • Ritalin
  • Quillivant XR (oral liquid)
  • QuilliChew ER (chewable tablet)
  • Metadate ER
  • Cotempla XR-ODT (oral disintegrating tablet)
  • Concerta
  • Methylin, Methylin ER
  • Ritalin LA, Ritalin SR
  • Aptensio XR

Methylphenidate Abuse And Addiction

Taking any medication or substance in a way that is not prescribed is considered abuse, including methylphenidate. Taking a medication in any way that was not prescribed to you, or lying about symptoms to get a prescription from a doctor are also considered abuse.

What begins as a seemingly harmless decision, like taking methylphenidate in order to focus and complete a task, can snowball out of control in a short amount of time. The accomplishment or success associated with that task can reinforce the desire to take another pill next time a deadline is set. This has the potential to create a vicious circle that addiction can grow within.

After repeated use, the brain may become dependent on the methylphenidate to feel ‘normal’, which reinforces the need to take more pills. This is a fast track to addiction, exhaustion, and other negative outcomes.

Over time, a person can develop a tolerance for methylphenidate, and need more of the drug to get the same effects. This can lead to increasing doses, taking pills more often, or crushing and snorting the pills.

As the need to continue to take methylphenidate increases, addiction will likely develop. There are signs and symptoms associated with methylphenidate abuse and addiction, and knowing them may help a person struggling with methylphenidate misuse.

Symptoms Of Methylphenidate Abuse

When a person abuses methylphenidate they may experience some of the following side effects of the drug:

  • rapid heart rate
  • dilated pupils
  • euphoria
  • hostility
  • headaches
  • nausea
  • excitability
  • no appetite
  • vomiting
  • high blood pressure
  • muscle twitching
  • rashes
  • anxiety
  • paranoia
  • restlessness
  • aggression
  • insomnia
  • long-term, painful erections
  • seizures
  • coma

Methylphenidate Abuse Dangers

A major concern of abusing methylphenidate is how it can affect existing behavioral disorders. Many individuals have reported a worsening of psychological symptoms with methylphenidate abuse. An emergence of hallucinations, mania, and delusions have been reported in those already struggling with mental health issues.

In addition, people who abuse methylphenidate may experience severe anxiety as well as a condition referred to as formication, which is the sensation that bugs are crawling on or below the skin.

Prolonged methylphenidate abuse usually leads to bouts of insomnia, resulting in mood swings, lowered immune system, and lack of nutrients.

Quality of life can also be drastically reduced as a result of methylphenidate abuse. Over time, a person can become consumed with finding and using methylphenidate, and end up damaging their career, relationships, and family issues.

People That Abuse Methylphenidate

The number of professionals and students that abuse methylphenidate is higher than any other group of people. They do not fit the stereotypical description of a person who struggles with addiction. This can make identifying a person struggling with methylphenidate much more difficult.

Additionally, many people who abuse methylphenidate often have prescriptions for the drug. They’ve reached out to a doctor or medical professional and reported false symptoms of ADHD in order to get a prescription, and then continue to misuse methylphenidate.

Sometimes, young people do not realize that sharing their prescription methylphenidate is both dangerous and illegal. They may have been asked to share it, or offered it to a friend, in an attempt to help them.

Overall, the availability of methylphenidate products is so high that it is no surprise that just about anyone can find a supply, and engage in methylphenidate abuse. There is no one person or type of person that describes a person struggling with methylphenidate abuse or addiction.

Methylphenidate Addiction Signs

It is not uncommon for someone with a methylphenidate addiction to attempt to hide their substance abuse. Even so, there are some signs of addiction that they may struggle to hide, such as:

  • using methylphenidate to focus on specific projects
  • taking methylphenidate to get high
  • spending excessive amounts of time finding and using methylphenidate
  • ignoring negative effects of methylphenidate and continuing to use
  • taking other people’s methylphenidate prescriptions
  • having multiple doctors or prescriptions for methylphenidate

Methylphenidate Overdose

Because methylphenidate is a stimulant, or an “upper” it essentially puts the body into overdrive, making everything work faster. As methylphenidate accumulates in the body, vital functioning systems become unregulated and the potential for overdose climbs to dangerous levels.

Signs of a methylphenidate overdose include:

  • elevated body temperature
  • cramping
  • confusion
  • panic
  • extreme thirst
  • agitation
  • headache
  • muscle spasms
  • flushed skin
  • hyperactive reflexes
  • diarrhea
  • rapid breathing
  • tremors
  • restlessness
  • delirium
  • tachycardia
  • hallucinations

The biggest concern when a person is abusing methylphenidate excessively is the extreme strain it places on the heart, and in turn the entire cardiovascular system. Complications in this system can result in arrhythmias, heart attack, stroke, extremely high or low blood pressure, and even circulation failure.

In severe cases methylphenidate overdose can result in seizure, coma, convulsions, and fatalities. If a methylphenidate overdose is suspected, seek medical assistance immediately.

Methylphenidate Withdrawal

When a person is dependent or addicted to methylphenidate, they will likely experience withdrawal symptoms when they do not take methylphenidate. While most withdrawal symptoms are uncomfortable, methylphenidate withdrawal usually is not fatal.

Some of the withdrawal symptoms a person is likely to experience when they stop methylphenidate are:

  • fatigue
  • strange dreams
  • hunger
  • depression
  • cravings for methylphenidate
  • panic attacks
  • suicidal thoughts
  • difficulty in feeling pleasure (anhedonia)
  • psychosis

Medical professionals do not advise people to stop taking methylphenidate abruptly. Instead, they suggest a tapering method, decreasing the milligram amount over a period of time. In situations of addiction, this is extremely important to reduce potential for relapse.

Monitored withdrawal that is part of a substance abuse treatment program is referred to as medically-supervised detoxification. This detox is available in many drug and alcohol treatment programs, including ones that treat methylphenidate addiction.

Methylphenidate Treatment Options

When seeking substance abuse treatment for methylphenidate abuse or addiction, it is important to find a facility that offers comprehensive substance abuse treatment, as well as the ability to treat co-occurring disorders. This type of rehab will be able to explore the nature of the addiction, how addiction has damaged different areas of life, the way addiction changes a person, and help a person find their way back to who they want to be.

Individuals who have co-occurring disorders, like ADHD, may need additional intervention methods included in substance abuse treatment to help manage their disorder and address their addiction to methylphenidate.

By using behavioral therapies, motivational interviewing techniques, cognitive intervention methods, and other evidence based techniques, the addiction specialists and counselors can help give people every opportunity to achieve and maintain sobriety.

Individualized treatment plans in a caring, structured environment can help a person struggling with methylphenidate addiction to create coping skills to decrease stress and are relapse prevention oriented.

Contact our team today to start on the path of sobriety.

Drug Enforcement Administration - Drug Scheduling

Mayo Clinic - Methylphenidate (Oral Route)

Noven Therapeutics - Daytrana

US National Library Of Medicine - Methylphenidate Overdose Causing Secondary Polydipsia and Severe Hyponatremia in an 8-Year-Old Boy

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