Ritalin (Methylphenidate) Abuse, Addiction, And Treatment

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D on December 14, 2020

Ritalin abuse is common, especially among high school and college students. This highly addictive prescription drug treats attention issues, as well as symptoms of fatigue, but abuse of it can quickly lead to addiction.

Ritalin Abuse And Addiction

Ritalin is a medication that acts as a central nervous system stimulant (CNS stimulant). By speeding up mental and physical activity, Ritalin increases energy, helps a person focus and pay attention, and elevates blood pressure, heart, and breathing rates.

Ritalin is the brand name for methylphenidate. This prescription drug causes a response in the body similar to illicit amphetamines.

The way methylphenidate works in the brain, called the mechanism of action, is not totally understood. Researchers believe that drugs like Ritalin and other methylphenidate-containing drugs increase chemicals in the brain that stimulate activity, motivation, and increase the ability to focus.

The neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine are part of that chemical elevation, leading to feeling euphoric. Wanting to experience those ‘feel good’ feelings, as with any drug abuse, may result in Ritalin abuse and eventual addiction.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Ritalin is a Schedule II Substance. Drugs in this classification have a high potential for abuse. High-risk drugs like this carry increased risk factors of dependence and addiction.

Some other prescription and illicit drugs that are also Schedule II Substances are fentanyl, Adderall, Vicodin, methadone, and cocaine.

What Is Ritalin?

Methylphenidate is a stimulant prescription medication used to treat Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. Methylphenidate-containing medications, like Ritalin, help people focus and pay attention. It also reduces appetite. In student groups, Ritalin is often called “The Study Drug”.

Research shows that when medications that have a high risk of abuse are prescribed often, the rate of abuse also goes up, which may explain why Ritalin and other methylphenidate drugs are abused at high rates.

Common Methylphenidate Medications

Methylphenidate is the active ingredient in several brand name prescription drugs. Pharmaceutical companies often design these drugs in a way that discourages abuse, and also increases the amount of time the medication remains active. These modified prescription medications usually have ER, LA, SR, and XR after the name of the medication.

This is a list of methylphenidate-containing medications, many of which are ADHD medications (the majority of these are in pill form, alternate types are noted next to the name):

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

How Do People Become Addicted To Ritalin?

Abusing Ritalin means taking the prescription drug in a way that is not prescribed. This includes taking medications not prescribed to you, making up symptoms so a doctor will write a prescription, or even crushing up and snorting the powder.

Some people start abusing Ritalin to help them complete a task more quickly or improve their focus, but abuse can spiral out of control quickly, especially if the person feels the need to take another pill when the next cutoff is set for a new project. This cycle of drug use with Ritalin can put someone on the fast track to addiction.

Continued Ritalin abuse leads to the brain developing a Ritalin dependence. At this point, the brain needs Ritalin in order to function normally and may develop a compulsion to take more methylphenidate.

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In time, tolerance develops, requiring higher doses of Ritalin to get the desired effects. A person may double a dose, taking more over a shorter period of time, or begin snorting or injecting Ritalin.

As these symptoms come to light, addiction is taking over. There are observable signs that a person is abusing or addicted to Ritalin, and being able to recognize these symptoms may be a way to assist someone with a Ritalin addiction.

Ritalin Abuse Symptoms And Dangers

Because methylphenidate stimulates brain function, some worry that Ritalin can worsen the symptoms of other preexisting mental health issues. People have indicated that some of their psychological symptoms have gotten worse after taking Ritalin.

In fact, there have been reports of individuals having hallucinations, delusions, and manic episodes. Some also felt severe anxiety and experienced a sensation of bugs wriggling beneath their skin, called formication.

Abusing Ritalin for extended periods of time typically results in mood swings, malnutrition, immune system issues, and insomnia.

There are several side effects of Ritalin, and someone who is abusing them may experience several of them, including:

  • headaches
  • euphoria
  • rapid heart rate
  • high blood pressure
  • hostility
  • not hungry
  • vomiting
  • dilated pupils
  • insomnia
  • excitability
  • long-term, painful erections
  • muscle twitching
  • rashes
  • anxiety
  • paranoia
  • restlessness
  • aggression
  • seizures
  • coma

Signs Of Ritalin Addiction

As with any addiction, the person may try to hide the signs of their prescription stimulant substance abuse.

That said, there are some signs they may not be able to keep concealed, such as:

  • taking Ritalin without a prescription “just to focus”
  • getting high off Ritalin
  • noticeable weight loss without diet or exercise
  • wasting large amounts of time tracking down and abusing Ritalin
  • continuing to take Ritalin while dismissing the negative effects
  • asking for, buying, or stealing Ritalin from people
  • they have multiple prescriptions for Ritalin that are from more than one doctor

Ritalin Overdose

The more Ritalin a person takes, the more it accumulates in the body. Different systems in the body are disrupted, functions become unregulated, and the risk for overdose is high.

Indications of a Ritalin overdose include:

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

Stimulants cause significant strain to the heart and cardiovascular system. This can cause damage that may lead to strokes, heart attack, blood pressure issues, arrhythmias, or circulation failure.

It is important to seek emergency medical services if you suspect a Ritalin overdose. Severe cases can cause convulsions, seizures, and coma, and can even be fatal.

Ritalin Withdrawal Symptoms

Ritalin withdrawal is uncomfortable, but it is not usually fatal. A person who is addicted to Ritalin will probably have withdrawal symptoms if they stop taking the stimulant drug.

Withdrawal from Ritalin often looks like:

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

Read more about managing withdrawal symptoms with Ritalin detox

Ritalin Addiction Treatment Options

Prescription drug addiction can be treated at an inpatient substance abuse treatment facility. A location that offers detox from stimulant drugs can help taper down the dosage and gradually reduce Ritalin use.

A comprehensive addiction treatment program can also help a person explore the nature of their addiction and help them create new goals to move forward.

Reach out to our addiction treatment specialists today and let us help you start the journey to sobriety.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D on December 14, 2020
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