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Methamphetamine – Effects, Symptoms and Treatment

By August 2, 2018 May 2nd, 2019 No Comments
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Methamphetamine, referred to as Crystal Meth when smoked, is a highly addictive stimulant that has become increasingly prevalent in Canada.

It has severe mental and physical effects on a user, and the withdrawal process is extremely difficult. However, professional support is available for those seeking to stop using the substance.

Methamphetamine Effects

Methamphetamine is an extremely addictive stimulant drug that causes chemical reactions in the brain that trick the body into believing it has unlimited energy supplies and drains energy reserves needed for other parts of the body. Users stay awake and active for long periods of time, before eventually crashing from exhaustion. The drug works on neurotransmitters which control heart rate and blood pressure, and on the central nervous system. It increases the flow of dopamine in the brain. This creates a feeling of euphoria during use, but reduces dopamine levels over time.

As stated in a report from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the drug initially makes a user feel “alert and energetic, confident and talkative. They feel little need for food or sleep.” However, they will also be prone to the drug’s immediate negative side effects, including “racing of the heart, chest pain, dryness of the mouth, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea and physical tension.” They may also experience intense feelings of restlessness and irritability. Sustained use also often results in “paranoid delusions, hallucinations, aggressive behaviour and impulsive violence.”

Methamphetamine Addiction Symptoms

As noted on our Methamphetamine addiction treatment page, “When the user stops taking the drug, the brain is unable to function normally for a period of days, weeks, or even months.” As with most substances, a user’s tolerance for the drug increases over time, meaning they need to use larger doses to achieve the same effect. Withdrawal from the drug also sets in quickly when a person stops using, inducing symptoms such as “stomach pain, hunger, headaches, shortness of breath, tiredness and depression.” The Department of Justice report that, “While withdrawal symptoms are less pronounced than for alcohol or opiates such as heroin, they are no less physiological in nature, and may include seizures, narcolepsy and stroke.” The severity of these symptoms makes professionally supervised withdrawal an important aspect of achieving recovery from methamphetamine addiction.

How Amphetamines Become Even More Addictive Over Time

Amphetamines are stimulants, making the user feel extremely energetic and as though they can function for prolonged periods without sleep. Methamphetamine works on the heart and central nervous system. The effects can last for up to sixteen hours. The drug also substantially increases the flow of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain, creating a euphoric reaction. This gradually trains the brain to demand more of this effect. It becomes reliant upon the dopamine surges produced by methamphetamine use, but reduces dopamine levels over time.

Methods of Methamphetamine Use

Shane, a meth user for over twenty years, described the progress of an addiction to CBC. He stated that, initially, the drug gives you “a lot of energy” and a boost to mood levels. However, with sustained use, “you start not sleeping and eating, or drinking water. You start needing to use more meth to function because your body’s slowly depleting but the meth keeps you going.”

Shane’s description captures how the addictive cycle begins. A user gradually moves towards a point where they have come to depend on the drug. They require it to make them feel functional and well, even as its damaging physical effects increase.

Users can ingest methamphetamine in a number of ways, all of which elicit different responses. Users can ingest it orally, nasally, inject or smoke it. Crystal Meth is the term for the form of the drug that users smoke. All of these methods result in different reaction times and in the lengths of the effects. As the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health describe, after the effects have worn off, “users are left feeling tired and depressed.” This can lead to a “binge and crash” cycle, with the user continuously using the drug to cope with the after effects of previous use and to prevent withdrawal symptoms occurring. Addiction can quickly form from this pattern.

Risks and Dangers of Methamphetamine Usage

Meth use also carries a high risk of overdose. As CAMH note, this danger is exacerbated by the wide variety in the content of what is sold as methamphetamine: “Since what is sold as methamphetamine varies widely in terms of content and purity, users can’t know how much they are taking.” The increase in a user’s tolerance over time will also often result in them taking larger and larger amounts, increasing the danger of overdose. Overdose can result in “seizures, high body temperature, irregular heartbeat, heart attack, stroke and death.” Different methods of ingestion also present different overdose risks. Injection is the most dangerous method of use, although overdose is possible through any method. CAMH also note that injection “puts the user at risk of infections from used needles or impurities in the drug, and of hepatitis or HIV if they share needles with others.”

Amphetamine Psychosis

Methamphetamine use can also result in amphetamine psychosis. The danger increases over time with sustained use. As noted by The Globe and Mail, “the stimulant can cause psychosis on its own when used heavily or if used by someone with other risk factors for psychosis.” CAMH identify “hallucinations, delusions, paranoia and bizarre and violent behaviour” as common side effects of amphetamine psychosis.”

The Globe and Mail article also notes that the drug makes users “more impulsive and prone to risky behaviour,” and that “more immediate problems include the risk of seizures and heart attacks.” This illustrates the range of dangers faced by methamphetamine users. Those who start using the drug at a young age are particularly vulnerable to its effects. This is because it can alter a younger brain more drastically. Researchers also stated concern that younger people are “less able to control risky behaviour,” and are therefore at greater risk of harming themselves or others while under the influence of the substance.

Long Term Effects of Methamphetamine Use

The Department of Justice report states that “the effects of methamphetamine include increased heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure and alertness.” The drug produces a “strong feeling of euphoria” and is “highly psychologically addictive.”  The addictive quality of methamphetamine is partially due to the intensity of the effects it produces. A user’s brain and body adjust to the increased levels of dopamine and the feelings of euphoria, energy and focus. It then becomes increasingly difficult to function without them. The drug also depletes the body’s physical and mental resources. When a person is not under the influence of the drug, their lack of energy and focus becomes more severe.

The Department of Justice report on methamphetamine use details the effects of the drug both on individual users and on communities. “Methamphetamine users are likely to be erratic, paranoid, aggressive, brazen, energetic and violent,” the report states. It also states that there are “short and long-term health effects, including paranoia, liver damage, brain damage and depression.”

One common side effect of methamphetamine use, commonly referred to as “tweaking,” involves the user becoming deeply immersed in a repetitive activity to the point of being completely oblivious to anything else. This is due to an increased sense of focus and energy resulting from the drug’s influence on neurotransmitters. Over time, methamphetamine weakens the immune system, making users prone to infections and other forms of illness. The report notes that methamphetamine users “are prone to violent outbreaks” and often exhibit “sexually compulsive behaviour” which makes them more likely to engage in “risky sexual encounters.”

Effect of Methamphetamine on Communities

Alongside its effects on the user, methamphetamine use has wider implications for communities. As stated by the Department of Justice, “The insatiable craving for the drug will cause addicts to do almost anything to obtain it. This can include behaviours never considered prior to the addiction.”

Police reports identify increased crime rates in areas where methamphetamine use is common. Reports differentiate between two categories of crimes. The first are crimes crimes generally committed in order to fund a methamphetamine habit. These include property crimes, thefts, robberies, fraud and identity theft. The second are crimes committed due to the mental and physical effects of use. These include dangerous driving, vandalism, assault and threatening behaviour.

The report notes that “Methamphetamine use is linked to an increased tendency to commit violent crimes, both because of the need to support the habit and as a result of the cognitive changes that result from consuming the drug.” CBC similarly report that ““Methamphetamine use and production also have social impacts on our communities. Communities can become vulnerable to petty crime, social disorder, associated risks to health, increases in violence and increases in large scale labs and drug trafficking.” Global News  identify a particularly strong link between methamphetamine prevalence and property theft.

History and Trends of Methamphetamine Use

Methamphetamine has a long history of distribution. It was used as far back as the 1920s. It was initially prescribed as a dietary aid, and has been used as prescription medication for narcolepsy, depression and ADHD. Methamphetamine is no longer legally available in Canada due to its adverse effects and highly addictive nature. However, it has become increasingly prevalent in the illegal drug trade. CBC report a 600% increase in the use of the drug at a supervised injection facility in Vancouver since 2005. A survey carried out by the CAMH in Perth County, Ontario in 2017 found that 51.5% of service providers reported an increase in people seeking help for amphetamine addiction in the previous year.

In Winnipeg, increase in methamphetamine use has been similarly rapid: in January 2018, the amount seized by police amounted to half of total seizures throughout 2017. Experts argue that this escalation has occurred while authorities and the media have focused on the opioid crisis. Authorities on the subject also believe that many people use methamphetamine unknowingly, as it is often found in other drugs. CAMH have reported that drugs sold as ecstasy often contain methamphetamine also. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police corroborate this in reporting on methamphetamine use.

Economic Factors

There is a significant economic factor in the rise in methamphetamine abuse and addiction. As reported by the London Free Press, “Crystal meth gained a London foothold after Oxycontin opioid pills […] were taken off the market in 2012.” With the availability of Oxycontin reduced and the price increased as a result, “addicts turned to cheaper, easy-to-get crystal meth.”

Donald B. McPherson of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition refers to the methamphetamine epidemic in the Midwest U.S. in the 1990s, stating that “It was very much to do with the change in economic circumstances.” He specifies that “It wasn’t that meth showed up and destroyed communities, it was that the economy fell out of communities. Canadian communities appear to have experienced similar effects in recent years. As reported by CTV News, meth has also had a devastating impact on First Nations communities throughout Canada, with levels of addiction particularly high.

Methamphetamine Addiction Treatment & Challenges

People struggling with the effects of methamphetamine abuse present extreme challenges for the police and for medical professionals. CBC note that, in Winnipeg, emergency services “no longer accept people who are experiencing active drug psychosis” due to the levels of addiction and the difficulties of treating people in this condition. Max Waddell of the Winnipeg police, however, told CBC that “When we take them to the hospital, it’s our belief that this is really a health issue.”

People experiencing amphetamine psychosis are often prone to violence and are extremely difficult for professionals to communicate with. They are in heightened sensory states, and react more viscerally and extremely to stimulants such as bright lights and noise. This means that people who are experiencing the worst side effects of methamphetamine addiction are left with nowhere to go. These people are often in extremely vulnerable states. As former addict Shane explains, “There’s not much help for people with psychosis and a crystal meth addiction.” This makes them far more likely to remain within an addictive cycle.

CBC’s report on the increasing methamphetamine problem in British Columbia identifies similar issues to those in Winnipeg, noting that “Front-line doctors say they’re struggling to treat patients addicted to crystal meth because of the effects of the drug, which include psychosis, paranoia, hallucinations and aggression.” They note that these symptoms and the fact that there is “no dedicated pharmacological treatments for meth addiction,” makes it extremely problematic for doctors to communicate with their patients before even trying to help them stop using the drug.

No Approved Substitute

There is not yet an approved form of substitution therapy for methamphetamine, unlike with heroin or other opioids. This makes achieving detox more challenging. Dr. Bill MacEwan, an addiction expert, states that a patient who wants to get off the drug must first get it out of their system in a health facility. He also commented that, once this has been achieved and the patient has undergone treatment, support programs “play a key role in helping people stay clean.” He specifies that support programs should ideally be regular, and should provide those attending them with “a sense of value.”

Methamphetamine – The Most Addictive Drug Out There

Experts consider methamphetamine to be one of the most addictive drugs in circulation and one of the hardest to treat. Relapse rates are estimated to be around 92%- worse than the equivalent rate for cocaine. Counsellors also report that withdrawal symptoms, including depression and physical agony, are “worse than heroin or cocaine,” and that they often cause addicts to leave recovery programs. The Department of Justice report also notes that “individuals may be unmotivated to seek help” in the initial stage, because of the sense of energy and productivity the drug produces. The physical and mental after effects of apathy and exhaustion may also sap a person’s willingness to seek help.

Bernadette Pauly, a scientist with the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, suggests that a holistic approach is essential in treating people for methamphetamine addiction. She discusses the necessity of treating the underlying causes of the addiction, and the full range of its consequences. Many people “use drugs as a response to trauma, abuse, dislocation and other life events,” she states. Pauly suggests that “We can keep to a minimum the harms, but we also need to look upstream and say, ‘What else is going on here that we need to address?’”

Treatment for Methamphetamine Addiction

Trafalgar Addiction Treatment Centres specializes in the sort of holistic approach Pauly describes. We focus on the issues underlying an addiction. Our treatment helps clients to develop methods for confronting them and dealing with their effects. We focus our treatment on the needs of the individual. We use only evidence-based methods to help the client build a strong foundation for recovery. These methods include individual therapy sessions with our highly qualified and experienced therapists. Clients also take part in group counselling with our dedicated, skilled counsellors and other clients undergoing similar experiences. We take a compassionate approach and treat the whole person- not just their addiction.

Traditional treatment models are often not effective for methamphetamine addiction. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, however, has proven effective in addressing the condition. It focuses on way that people addicted to methamphetamine think, and how this influences their thoughts and actions. This helps the client to identify relapse triggers and develop methods for resisting the impulse to use. This approach prepares them for long-term recovery.

Methamphetamine addiction also requires longer treatment and more intense programming than many other forms of addiction. Trafalgar’s treatment program is designed to fulfill these requirements. Our Aftercare and ContinUcare programs also mean that clients can rely upon our support long after leaving treatment. Recovery is a long-term process, and Trafalgar Addiction Treatment Centres is committed to supporting its clients throughout.

Trafalgar Addiction Treatment Centres

Trafalgar Addiction Treatment Centres

We offer residential and outpatient rehab treatment programs for addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders.

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