Understanding Stimulant Abuse

Stimulant pill sitting on a counter

Stimulant drugs are medications that speed up processes in the body. Some are illegal street drugs, such as cocaine and meth. Others are legal when taken with a prescription and are used to treat disorders such as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Stimulants are frequently abused by high schoolers and college students because they believe the stimulants increase their academic performance. People who use stimulants for nonmedical purposes are at risk of developing an addiction. 

What is a Stimulant Drug?

To understand what stimulant drugs are, it is helpful to know a little bit about the brain. The surfaces of brain cells contain molecules called receptors that help brain cells send signals to one another. The signals that brain cells send are called neurotransmitters. For example, norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter that controls the body’s response to stress and helps people focus. Dopamine is a signaling molecule that helps control a person’s mood and motivation.

So, what is a stimulant drug? Stimulants amplify the body’s responses to neurotransmitters like norepinephrine and dopamine. They can help people focus, amp up a person’s energy levels and make someone feel more motivated. Some stimulants can give people a euphoric high. Stimulants also affect a person’s body, causing an elevated heart rate and blood pressure. Using these substances increases the amount of dopamine in brain regions that are involved in substance abuse and are often addictive, which leads to abuse.

What are Stimulants Used For?

Originally, stimulant medications were prescribed for multiple conditions, including asthma, neurological disorders and obesity. However, as medical professionals began to realize that this class of drugs is addictive, they began to prescribe them for fewer disorders in an attempt to curb the number of people who misuse them. 

What are stimulant drugs used for now? Drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin are prescribed to treat ADHD and narcolepsy. Some stimulant medications are also used to help patients with treatment-resistant depression. And many street drugs like cocaine and crystal meth are stimulants that are taken by people to get high.

People may take stimulants to experience the following effects:

  • Euphoria
  • Improved memory
  • Increased concentration
  • Energy boost
  • Reduced appetite

It is important to remember that along with these potentially positive effects comes a wide range of negative effects, risk of overdose and the potential to become addicted.

Who Uses Stimulants?

There are several specific groups of people who use stimulants at higher rates than the general population. 

  • College students: Prescription stimulant abuse on university campuses has escalated in recent decades. Students are increasingly turning to “study drugs” to help increase alertness, motivation and focus. Many students begin using stimulants while still in high school. Students who think stimulants will boost their academic performance may try to access these substances from friends or family who have prescriptions.
  • ADHD patients: People with ADHD may rely on Adderall, Ritalin and other stimulants to help them increase their focus. While many children have been prescribed stimulants to help treat ADHD in the past, the majority of prescriptions now go to adults. All stimulants are potentially habit-forming but people who use them for medical reasons are less at risk to experience addiction. Several studies have looked at stimulant ADHD medication and risk for substance abuse and have found that ADHD patients who take stimulants are unlikely to struggle with substance abuse based on the stimulant’s use.
  • Individuals trying to lose weight: Why might overweight people choose to abuse a stimulant? Weight loss and appetite suppression are common side effects of stimulants. Doctors used to prescribe stimulants for weight loss purposes. Women are more likely than men to misuse prescription stimulants for weight loss purposes.

People who take stimulants without a prescription or for nonmedical purposes are much more likely to develop a substance use disorder than people who follow their prescription. Those who have a history of misusing other substances should stay away from stimulants due to their abuse potential.

Examples of Stimulants

Brand name stimulant drugs include:

Illegal stimulant drugs include:

  • Uppers, black beauties, speed and study buddies (all street names for Adderall)
  • Vitamin R, R-ball, diet coke, kiddie coke, skippy, skittles and smarties (names for Ritalin)
  • Blow, coke, snow, nose candy, sneeze, line and dust (names for cocaine)
  • Crystal meth, cristy, crank, tweak, glass, ice, go and chalk (names for methamphetamine)

How Are Stimulants Taken?

The majority of people who misuse prescription stimulants get them for free from family or friends. Others may buy them illicitly. There are many ways people can get the stimulants into their body.

Prescribed Administration Methods

Most prescription stimulants come in the form of a tablet that is meant to be swallowed. The tablet is a capsule containing powder or a liquid. 

Different brands of stimulants may contain different active ingredients and work in different ways in the body. As a result, they may come with contrasting sets of directions for how they should be used. For example, Ritalin has milder effects and is often prescribed to be taken two or three times a day. Concerta contains the same active ingredient as Ritalin, but was designed to last longer in the body and typically just needs to be taken once a day. 

Administration Methods of Abuse

People who are accessing someone else’s prescription stimulant may just swallow the pill or capsule in its original form. Some people may crush the tablet into powder, or open up a capsule and dump out the powder. Additionally, people may abuse stimulants by:

  • Dissolving powder in water and injecting it into a vein
  • Snorting powder
  • Smoking powder and inhaling the vapor (the most common method for using meth)
  • Rubbing the substance onto gums, where it is absorbed into the bloodstream (popular with cocaine)

Certain administration methods are more dangerous than others. If people share needles, for example, they are putting themselves at a higher risk of developing HIV, hepatitis and other infectious diseases. Even if a person would normally never share drug equipment, those who misuse stimulants are more likely to participate in risky behavior. 

Signs of Stimulant Abuse

Because some stimulants provide effects like increased concentration and memory boosts, it’s easy to see why stimulants are abused on college campuses. However, it’s also important to know that taking these medications without a prescription puts people more at risk for engaging in more serious stimulant abuse

Anytime someone takes a stimulant for nonmedical reasons, it’s considered misuse. This is also true for using someone else’s prescription. Other signs of stimulant abuse include people taking their own stimulant prescription more often or at higher doses than their doctor instructed. Because street drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine are illegal in the United States, any use of these drugs is considered abuse.

If someone is abusing stimulants, they may experience side effects like:

  • Increased or irregular heart rate
  • High blood pressure
  • Rapid breathing
  • Fever
  • Exhaustion
  • Extreme weight loss
  • Psychosis
  • Cardiac problems including heart attack
  • Seizure
  • Stroke
  • Brain damage

People who abuse stimulants may not be able to stop using them on their own because they can be so addictive. The good news is that there are many medical professionals and treatment programs that are able to help people struggling with stimulant abuse.

Stimulant Abuse Statistics

Stimulant medications have become more widely prescribed over the past few decades and as a result, more people are able to access them illegally. In a 2015-2016 survey, about 16 million adults in the United States reported using prescription stimulants within the previous year. Out of those 16 million, five million said they misused them. Also, 95.3% of people who have misused prescription stimulants said that they had misused other substances as well. Most of the time, people used other illegal substances or misused prescription medications before misusing stimulants. This pattern may indicate that people who have a history of substance abuse problems are more likely to misuse stimulants.

Stimulant abuse statistics show that misusing these drugs can have serious health consequences. Increasing numbers of young adults are going to the emergency room because of problems stemming from stimulant misuse. About 30% of these emergency department visits involve mixing stimulants with alcohol. Additionally, overdose deaths from stimulants have increased by 7.5 times over the past decade, with stimulants being involved in about 15% of drug overdose deaths in 2017.

Illicit stimulant use is a regional issue in the United States, with some parts of the country having more problems than others. The Pacific Northwest is one of the areas where stimulant abuse is a serious problem. In one university in this region, over a quarter of students reported misusing prescription stimulants. Washington also was one of the states that reported an increase in meth overdose deaths in 2017.

Risks of Stimulant Addiction

Stimulants are relatively safe to use when they’re taken as prescribed by a doctor. One study found that people diagnosed with ADHD who took stimulant medications as prescribed were unlikely to abuse substances.

Stimulant misuse can quickly lead to tolerance, which happens when a person’s body gets used to the drug and the person needs to maintain substances to feel normal. When a person loses control over how often or how much stimulant they use, they may have a substance use disorder. This development can be considered a stimulant addiction.

Signs of addiction include taking increasingly higher doses of a stimulant, skipping out on work, school or other responsibilities because of stimulant use and continuing to use stimulants despite feeling guilty or ashamed.

Treatment for Stimulant Addiction

Why are stimulants abused? Many people initially try stimulants because of the positive benefits they can provide and eventually find out they can’t stop taking them on their own. Various treatment options exist to help people who are struggling to regain control over their substance use.

Treatment options for stimulant drugs include both inpatient and outpatient rehab. 

With inpatient treatment, people live at a facility 24//7 and can continuously get support from medical professionals and counselors who can help treat their substance use disorder as well as any other underlying mental health disorders. Outpatient rehab consists of spending part of the day at a rehab facility and then going home at night. Both options usually provide patients with individual therapy, group counseling and educational classes. The goal of rehab is to help people readjust thought patterns, behaviors and habits so that they can learn how to live a sober life.

Contact The Recovery Village Ridgefield to speak with a representative about how professional addiction treatment can address stimulant use and any co-occurring mental health disorders. You deserve a healthier future, call today.

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National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Prescription Stimulants.” June 2018. Accessed August 18, 2019.

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