Shooting Meth: Side Effects and Dangers
Methamphetamine, also known as meth, is a dangerous and addictive substance that stimulates the central nervous system (CNS), resulting in an increase in brain activity, heart rate, and respiratory rate. Meth is abused for its intensely euphoric properties and ability to increase energy and attention, but it can have serious and debilitating consequences on an individual’s physical and mental health.1
In 2012, a reported 1.2 million people had used meth in the past year, and around 103,000 people went to the emergency room (ER) due to meth use in 2011.3 The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), reports that about 18% of amphetamine-type stimulant abusers inject the drug.4
Understanding the harmful impact that methamphetamine has on all aspects of life may help the individual to make a positive change and begin to break their methamphetamine addiction.
“Crystal,” “ice,” “glass,” and “meth” all refer to the highly addictive drug known as methamphetamine, or meth. Today, the bulk of the world’s supply of methamphetamine is illicitly produced, but this wasn’t always the case.
Meth was first synthesized in Japan in 1919 as a chemical derivative of amphetamine, a stimulant medication with a number of therapeutic uses.5
By the 1950s, people were using meth on their own in IV form, resulting in increasing numbers of addictions. For this reason, methamphetamine was made an illegal substance with the passing of the U.S. Drug Abuse and Regulation Control Act of 1970.5
After a short reprieve in meth IV use, meth laboratories sprouted up across the Southwestern United States as drug trafficking increased over the US-Mexico borders. Today, meth labs can be found in many areas throughout the United States.
Methamphetamine Use in the United States
- In 2014, nearly 570,000 people were currently abusing methamphetamine.6
- In that same year, an estimated 45,000 adolescents between 12 and 17 years old were current meth users.6
- More than 86,000 young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 years old used or abused methamphetamine in 2014.6
- ER visits involving methamphetamine increased by nearly 40,000 between the years 2007 and 2011.7
- In 2011, more than 60% of ER visits related to methamphetamine also involved another substance.7
Shooting up meth causes the stimulant to reach the brain very quickly, producing an extreme “rush” or feeling of euphoria.2 Although intense, the rush only lasts for a few minutes; more of the drug must be injected in order to continue feeling pleasure. This is why meth is often used in a “binge-and-crash” pattern, repeatedly shooting up in order to maintain the high. This may continue for many days and is known as a “run.” Individuals may forget about necessary functions, such as sleeping and eating, in favor of abusing meth.2
Other short-term effects include:1
- Increased attention and energy.
- Decreased appetite.
- Rapid heartbeat.
- Increased respiratory rate.
- Increased body temperature.
The euphoria experienced by a meth user is caused by the rapid release of dopamine in the brain. This neurotransmitter is related to pleasure, motivation, and motor control, and it positively reinforces drug-using behaviors with the rush it creates.1 Since meth users typically abuse the stimulant in a binge-and-crash pattern, repeated exposure and dopamine release results in a depressive state once the binge is over.
In the early stages of the high, the user experiences excitement, euphoria, racing thoughts, and rapid speech. The individual may have an increased sex drive during this early phase as well as decreased impulse control. Energy and alertness are heightened, and the individual may feel an increase in physical strength.7
In the later stages of a methamphetamine high, the user become restless, nervous, violent, and psychotic. Cravings for methamphetamine are likely to arise in the later phase, as well as a depressive mood, fatigue, and itching.8
Diversion of prescription stimulants
Injecting methamphetamine can cause a number of medical problems. These are related to the potency of the drug and the route of administration. Below are some complications caused by shooting up meth:4
- Track lines.
- Puncture marks.
- Collapsed veins.
- Increased risk of contracting HIV, hepatitis, tuberculosis.
- Skin infections.
The risk of contracting HIV is increased due to sharing needles and engaging in unsafe sexual activity, which is common for meth users.9 The following are additional harmful effects caused by methamphetamine, regardless of the route administration:4,5
- Violent behaviors
- Mood disturbances
- Memory problems
- Cognitive issues
- Impairment in motor functioning
- Heart attack
- Sexual dysfunction
- Weight loss
Additives Used to Make Methamphetamine
Methamphetamine bought on the street contains a combination of different additives used to produce the drug. Many of these additives are not safe for human consumption and can cause further complications, such as organ damage, poisoning, internal chemical burns, and immune and neurological dysfunction. Some of the chemicals used in the production of methamphetamine include:10, 11
- Anhydrous ammonia.
- Red phosphorous.
- Sodium metal.
- Sulfuric acid.
- Hydrochloric acid.
Meth, when used alone, is extremely dangerous and can produce fatal results, but the harmful additives amplify the risk of adverse effects.
Chemical Imbalances in the Brain
An addiction to meth changes the user’s brain chemistry over time. Chronic and repeated use results in tolerance to the stimulant. When an individual has a high tolerance to methamphetamine, he or she requires increasing amounts of the drug in order to experience the desired effects, such as euphoria. The brain and body adapt to the ongoing presence of methamphetamine, and when the individual stops using the drug, he or she will most likely experience withdrawal symptoms.
One significant withdrawal symptom is severe cravings for meth. This is because meth depresses important parts of the brain, which remain damaged even after cessation of use. Studies have revealed that the only way to return neurological functioning back to normal is to take meth again.12 This explains the extreme cravings that many users in recovery experience and why they last for so long.
Along with cravings, there are other withdrawal symptoms associated with the cessation of meth use. Although withdrawal syndrome isn’t life-threatening in and of itself, there is an increased risk of committing suicide for those going through withdrawal from methamphetamine.4 Other withdrawal symptoms include:4
- The inability to feel pleasure.
- Decreased heart rate.
- Slow movements and thoughts.
- Unpleasant dreams.
- Increased appetite.
Once these withdrawal symptoms subside, cravings could persist for a much longer time due to the changes in brain chemistry caused by persistent methamphetamine use.
Methamphetamine has powerful effects on the dopaminergic system in the brain. As previously mentioned, abusing methamphetamine causes a surge of dopamine in the brain, which is responsible for the pleasurable feelings associated with use. Repeated use can have neurotoxic, or brain-damaging, effects because the stimulant destroys dopaminergic neurons, which results in decreased levels of the neurotransmitter and transporters in the brain.13
Likewise, Parkinson’s disease is characterized by a degeneration of dopaminergic brain cells, which is responsible for the symptoms of the disorder. Since chronic meth abuse leads to reduced dopamine levels in the brain, the meth user has an increased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.13 Two recent studies revealed that meth users could be 2 to 3 times more likely to develop this degenerative neurological condition.13, 14
Repeated use can have neurotoxic, or brain-damaging, effects because the stimulant destroys dopaminergic neurons, which results in decreased levels of the neurotransmitter and transporters in the brain.1
Parkinson’s disease presents with a number of symptoms. In the early stages, patients may experience rigidity, slow movements, difficulty walking, and tremors.13 Some other symptoms include emotional or behavioral problems, sleep disturbances, and cognitive difficulties. Dementia may occur in a later phase of the disease.13
“Tweaking” on Meth
Tweaking refers to a stage occurring anywhere from 4 to 24 hours after a methamphetamine binge has ended. A meth binge, in which the user takes repeated doses of the drug in order to maintain a high, can last anywhere from 1 to 5 days. Tweaking is characterized by scattered thinking, paranoia, irritability, hyper-vigilance, and hallucinations, and occurs before a crash or comedown from methamphetamine.5
For those suffering from an addiction to methamphetamine, help is available. There are different types of treatment options that can help make a positive change and achieve sobriety. One form of recovery is not better than any other; it all depends on the individual’s needs and the severity of the addiction.
The different types of recovery programs include:
- Traditional inpatient treatment: These programs provide a structured environment in which the individual lives at the recovery center for the entirety of your treatment program. This may be the best option for an individual suffering from a severe meth addiction since it allows them to escape from the everyday meth-using environment in order to focus all of your attention on recovery. Some services provided at an inpatient center include:
- Intake evaluation.
- Individual therapy.
- Group counseling.
- 12-step programs.
- Aftercare planning.
- Luxury inpatient treatment: Luxury treatment centers provide a comfortable environment to recover from your methamphetamine addiction. They have more staff members and less patients in order to provide highly individualized and attentive care. They offer the services that traditional inpatient centers do, in addition to amenities such as:
- Spa treatments.
- Private rooms.
- Gourmet meals.
- Horseback riding.
- Outpatient treatment: For those who have a milder meth addiction, this type of recovery program provides the opportunity to attend outpatient treatment at a facility while living at home. It is beneficial for those who must continue working, attending school, or taking care of the family. Outpatient treatment can involve:
- Individual therapy.
- Group counseling.
- Family therapy.
- Relapse-prevention classes.
- Drug-education classes.
Although there are no FDA-approved medications for the treatment of methamphetamine addiction, other medications, such as antidepressants, may be prescribed to treat depression as a result of withdrawal or a co-occurring mental health problem.
One treatment program, which is used for an addiction to stimulants such as methamphetamine, is the Matrix Model. It focuses on self-empowerment through self-assurance and dignity.15 This treatment program, designed to promote abstinence in stimulant users, focuses on fostering a positive and genuine relationship between the therapist and patient. The program includes a combination of different treatment strategies in order to engage the patient and increase the odds of success. The program includes the following:15
- Self-help programs.
- Substance education.
- Family education.
- Family therapy.
- Group counseling.
- Individual sessions.
- Early recovery skills.
- Relapse-prevention groups.
- 12-step programs.
- Social support groups.
- Relapse analysis.
Other psychotherapies that are used to treat methamphetamine abuse include:
- Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT):16 A therapist will help identify maladaptive behaviors related to meth addiction and aid in rectifying them using a number of different strategies. The therapist will work with the individual to anticipate future issues and develop coping skills used to increase self-control.
- Contingency Management:17 This approach uses incentives, such as tangible rewards, when the patient passes a urine test. Contingency Management aims to promote abstinence through this reward system.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2013). What are the immediate (short-term) effects of methamphetamine abuse?
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2013). How is methamphetamine abused?
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2013). What is the scope of methamphetamine abuse in the United States?
- American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5. (5th ed.). (2013). Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Publishing.
- Center for Substance Abuse Research. (2013). Methamphetamine.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015). Behavioral Health Trends in the United States: Results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014). Emergency Department Visits Involving Methamphetamine: 2007 to 2011.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2013). What are the long-term effects of methamphetamine abuse?
- Fisher, D.G., Reynolds, G.L. & Napper, L.E. (2010). Use of crystal methamphetamine, Viagra, and sexual behavior. Current Opinion in Infectious Diseases, 23(1), 53-56.
- The U.S. Department of Justice. (2006). Methamphetamine Laboratory Identification and Hazards Fast Facts.
- DrugWarFacts.org. (2015). Methamphetamine & Amphetamine-Type Stimulants.
- University of Washington. (2008). Methamphetamine Addiction Mechanism Discovered, Explains Why Cravings Last So Long.
- Granado, N., Ares-Santos, S. & Moratalla, R. (2013). Methamphetamine and Parkinson’s Disease. Parkinson’s Disease.
- Curtin, K., Fleckenstein, A.E., Robison, R.J., Crookston, M.J., Smith, K.R. & Hanson, G.R. (2015). Methamphetamine/amphetamine abuse and risk of Parkinson’s disease in Utah: A population-based assessment. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 146(1), 30-38.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2012). The Matrix Model (Stimulants).
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2012). Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (Alcohol, Marijuana, Cocaine, Methamphetamine, Nicotine).
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2012). Contingency Management Interventions/Motivational Incentives (Alcohol, Stimulants, Opioids, Marijuana, Nicotine).