Physical Effects of Crystal Meth Addiction
Methamphetamine is a synthetic stimulant drug that goes by number of street names, including crystal meth, meth, crank, and glass. The substance is often produced in small laboratories in private residences using pseudoephedrine, ephedrine, or other ingredients that can be extracted from over-the-counter cold remedies, cough syrup, and even antifreeze, drain cleaners, and batteries. The production of crystal meth is one that produces a highly combustible product, and it is a dangerous undertaking.
Medicinal forms of methamphetamine are available and often used in the treatment of certain disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Methamphetamine is considered to be a Schedule II controlled substance by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), meaning while it does have some medicinal uses, it is a drug that is highly prone to abuse and has a significant potential for the development of physical and psychological dependence in individuals who use it for lengthy periods. It cannot be legally obtained without a prescription, and the private manufacture of the drug is illegal.
Effects of Using or Abusing Methamphetamine
Crystal meth is either snorted, smoked, or injected. Its initial effects include a long-lasting sensation of euphoria that is similar to the type of euphoria produced by cocaine and other stimulant drugs. This euphoria manifests as an extreme sense of wellbeing, happiness, or distractibility.
The use of methamphetamine results in massive increases in a number of neurotransmitters in the brain, in particular dopamine and norepinephrine. Dopamine is most likely a familiar neurotransmitter to individuals who read about substance use disorders because it is implicated in nearly every substance use disorder, and nearly every substance of abuse results in either a direct or indirect increase in levels of dopamine in the central nervous system.
Methamphetamine directly results in extremely high levels of dopamine by blocking the reuptake of the drug back into the nerves once it is released. This also results in increased releases of dopamine. Methamphetamine is classified as a dopamine agonist, which means that it results in increasing levels of dopamine in the central nervous system, but it also affects other neurotransmitters similarly, such as norepinephrine and serotonin.
In particular, methamphetamine use activates the area of the brain known as the mesolimbic system. This brain system is often incorrectly referred to as the “pleasure system of the brain” because when it is stimulated, it produces feelings of reward or reinforcement. The mesolimbic system is designed to encourage repetition of behaviors that have successful outcomes by inducing feelings of reinforcement for performing them, and crystal meth directly stimulates this center of the brain (among others), resulting in a massive increase of dopamine. The dopamine is not taken back up into the cells, and there is a gradual buildup of dopamine that results in long-lasting feelings of euphoria. Because the individual is naturally motivated to repeat this behavior due to the action of the drug, individuals often binge heavily on crystal meth to continue to get this sensation.
The euphoria that occurs as a result of methamphetamine use is reported to last as long as 8-12 hours, and of course, this would facilitate repeating using the drug. Chronic use of methamphetamine actually alters the neurons in the brain and affects systems in the brain that use dopamine. Long-term use of drugs like methamphetamine results in brain damage that reduces the efficiency of a number of areas of the brain and can lead to issues with attention, memory, problem-solving, and other cognitive tasks. Moreover, the structural changes in the brain that occur with chronic use of methamphetamine set up a situation where even an individual who has abstained from crystal meth use for quite some time is prone to returning to bingeing and chronic abuse more quickly once they begin to use it again, compared to an individual who has not experienced these structural changes.
In addition, people who use methamphetamine and other stimulants, such as cocaine, often have experiences they refer to as “the crash.” This experience occurs when the individual stops using the drug, and there is a massive reduction in levels of dopamine and other neurotransmitters in the central nervous system. This massive reduction of dopamine results in severe feelings of depression, apathy, hopelessness, confusion, and cravings for the drug. Thus, crystal meth is a highly addictive and dangerous drug of abuse.
Other Physical Effects of Crystal Meth
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), initial effects of methamphetamine use are the aforementioned euphoria and wellbeing, a sudden rush of energy, extreme talkativeness, hyperactivity, and increased sensitivity to environmental stimulation. These feelings of extreme euphoria are reinforcing yet, at the same time, the initial “rush” that individuals experience when they first use the drug will typically not be as intense over time. One of the reasons for this is that tolerance to stimulants develops very rapidly, and people who abuse these drugs quickly find that they have to take higher and higher amounts of the drug to even approximate the effects that once occurred at lower doses.
Moreover, a psychological theory of addiction known as the incentive sensitization drug abuse theory posits that as tolerance develops and individuals use more of the drug, they actually experience diminishing returns. The sensations that the drug initially produced are no longer as salient as they once were, yet the individual continues to use more of the drug in an effort to reproduce the intensity of the effects that were once experienced. Often, this is referred to as “the desire for the drug is stronger than the actual effects of the drug.” As individuals chronically use crystal meth, more of the negative effects, such as hyperactivity, insomnia, etc., dominate, and the very strong feelings of euphoria diminish.
According to NIDA, the physical effects of crystal meth abuse include:
- Bloodshot eyes
- Dilated pupils
- Marked weight loss, even though the individual is not dieting or sick
- Gaunt appearance
- Dark circles under the eyes
- Burn marks around the mouth or on the fingertips
- Dry or cracked skin
- Constantly picking at skin sores
- Other skin sores, particularly around the mouth and nose
- Rapid tooth decay or tooth loss (often referred to as “meth mouth” and occurs as a result of the corrosive effects of methamphetamine or other amphetamine-like drugs)
- Consistently runny nose (most often in individuals who snort drugs)
- Dry mouth
- Teeth grinding or constant clenching of the teeth
- Consistent bad breath
- Excessive perspiration
- Overheating easily
- Displaying long periods of insomnia that alternate with periods of extreme lethargy or sleepiness
- Extreme talkativeness
- Inability to hold a train of thought or jumping from subject to subject
- Odd twitches or tremors
- Mood swings that range from extreme happiness (even mania) to extreme irritability
- Compulsive behaviors or fixations on trivial aspects of things
- Suspiciousness or even paranoia
- Seeing or hearing things that are not present
- Difficulty focusing
- Seizures (more common with extremely high use of methamphetamine or when the drug is mixed with other drugs, such as alcohol)
- Issues with memory and problem-solving skills
From a behavioral standpoint, some of the major issues associated with a stimulant use disorder to methamphetamine are:
- Neglecting major obligations in life
- Decline in the productivity
- Selling numerous personal possessions to fund the crystal meth habit
- Frequently attempting to borrow money from others
- Lying about substance use
- Other uncharacteristic signs of dishonesty, such as theft
- Social withdrawal
- A sudden change in friends or peers
- A major change in mental health status, such as mood swings, irritability, violence and/or aggression, altering periods of depression and mania, anxiety attacks, and paranoia
Other physical signs of a stimulant use disorder as a result of methamphetamine abuse include the development of tolerance and withdrawal. The American Psychiatric Association defines strict diagnostic criteria for stimulant use disorders that include many aspects of the above signs and symptoms. The formal diagnosis of a substance use disorder can only be made by a licensed mental health clinician.
The physical effects of crystal meth abuse represent both short-term effects that are reversible (e.g., issues with hyperactivity, insomnia, etc.) and potential long-term effects that may not be fully reversible (e.g., changes in neurobiological pathways, the reduction in cognitive functioning, etc.). Because of the potential dangers associated with chronic abuse of crystal meth, individuals with suspected substance use disorders as a result of crystal meth abuse should seek treatment as soon as possible.