Ritalin is best known for its treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as a central nervous system stimulant. The medication increases focus, reasoning, and the ability to plan, organize and solve problems through the increase of dopamine and norepinephrine activity in the brain. In individuals who have insufficient activity of these neurotransmitters, Ritalin is an essential drug that allows them to function normally in modern society. Without it, people with ADHD have a hard time in school and at work, as they are unable to sit still and concentrate for long periods of time.
Unfortunately, it is possible to abuse Ritalin and become addicted to it. Those using it for ADHD or another medical condition who follow dosage directions are unlikely to become addicted to the drug, but using it to get high significantly increases this possibility.
In recent years, it’s become a trend among young people to abuse drugs like Ritalin and Adderall in order to give them the energy and focus to take care of their increasing load of responsibilities. Workloads for middle school, high school, and college students in the US have been steadily increasing, as has pressure to participate in additional activities in order to get into good colleges or jobs. Ritalin allows people without ADHD to achieve a state of hyper focus and energy so they can stay up all night writing a paper or studying. One study found that one in five American college students ends up engaging in nonmedical prescription stimulant use.
The downside to this is that once the drug wears off, those who have taken it without a prescription or at an excessively high dose tend to experience a “crash” that includes symptoms like fatigue, sluggishness, and difficulty concentrating. If they want to continue working or even functioning, they’ll have to take more. This can quickly lead to a pattern than ends in tolerance, addiction, and withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop taking it.
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Ritalin can cause a number of side effects, whether it’s abused or taken as directed. However, abuse of this drug makes it more likely that a person will experience more side effects, including more severe ones.
Common side effects from Ritalin include:
- Nausea or vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Increased heart rate
More severe side effects that should illicit a call to one’s doctor include:
- Cold hands or feet
- Fast, pounding, or irregular heartbeat
- Abnormal thoughts
- Suicidal thoughts
- Uncontrolled muscle movements
- Sudden, uncontrolled verbal outbursts
- Vision problems
This is not a complete list of potential side effects from Ritalin. Speak with a doctor or pharmacist for more information.
Another potential side effect is addiction, which involves the appearance of withdrawal symptoms once the drug leaves the system. Withdrawal does not automatically mean someone is addicted to Ritalin, but it is a strong sign of a problem, especially if the individual has been abusing the substance.
Withdrawal Symptoms and Timeline
Withdrawal happens because the brain attempts to compensate for the constant presence of a drug. When it comes to Ritalin, the brain will make itself less sensitive to dopamine and norepinephrine in individuals who are already naturally producing enough of these neurotransmitters. This is the process of building a tolerance. Users then have to take higher doses in order to achieve the same effect.
After a while, the brain has changed enough that stopping all intake of the drug or significantly lowering the dose will result in unpleasant symptoms because the brain is no longer functioning properly. Until the brain can readjust back to normal, it will be in a state of withdrawal. The symptoms tend to be on the opposite side of the spectrum from the high, as the individual now has an insufficient amount of activity in the brain rather than too much.
Ritalin withdrawal symptoms include:
- Increased appetite
- Brain fog (difficulty concentrating)
- Lack of motivation
- Sleep changes
- Anxiety or depression
- Mood swings
- Panic attacks
- Vision changes
- Heart palpitations
- Suicidal ideation
Dangerous symptoms like psychosis and suicidal thoughts and urges are rare, typically only emerging in cases of severe, long-term addiction. Even without these, however, withdrawal tends to be an unpleasant process. This is likely a contributing factor in the fact that less than 1 percent of individuals suffering from a substance abuse problem sought treatment in 2013. It can help to plan ahead for the withdrawal period, which involves learning what to expect during which parts of the timeline. In addition, medical detox can help to lessen symptoms of withdrawal so the process is not uncomfortable.
Ritalin has a short half-life and will be almost entirely out of a person’s body within 24 hours after the last dose was taken. This is around when withdrawal symptoms will begin. The length of the withdrawal period tends to vary more widely than that of other drugs, but the most noticeable symptoms tend to last for 7-10 days.
- Days 1-2: Symptoms begin and escalate quickly. The first symptoms to appear are typically headaches, fatigue, increased appetite, difficulty concentrating, and mild emotional issues. Individuals are likely to do little other than eat and sleep during this period.
- Days 2-7: Withdrawal symptoms peak sometime during this period, and intense symptoms can last for a couple days. Recovering individuals may experience persistent nausea on top of headaches and severe mood swings that include irritability and anger. If anxiety has already appeared, it can intensify into panic attacks. This is the period in which to watch out for severe and dangerous symptoms like psychosis and suicidal ideation.
- Days 7-10: During this period, symptoms should fade until they’re gone. Physical symptoms like nausea, palpitations, and headaches often dissipate first while emotional symptoms may linger.
- Days 10-14: In some cases, certain symptoms can continue for unusually long periods of time. These are most often the cognitive and emotional symptoms, like brain fog, motivational issues, anxiety, and depression. If symptoms persist, direct treatment may be necessary to get the person back to normal.
People tend to dread the withdrawal process; however, it doesn’t need to be a terrible ordeal. There are options other than suffering through days of pain and panic attacks at home.
Medically Supervised Detox
Addicted individuals have the option of going through withdrawal, also called detox, in a hospital setting. This can be in a standard hospital or a specialized addiction treatment center. Medically supervised detox is designed to make the withdrawal process as easy and comfortable as possible. Many of the 14,500 addiction treatment centers across the US offer this service.
Particularly with the preemptive treatment of emotional symptoms, medically supervised detox can shorten the withdrawal timeline by a couple days. This makes the process much more bearable. The best part about this treatment is that it virtually eliminates the temptation to relapse. Though there are no medications approved to directly reduce cravings for stimulants like Ritalin, being supervised and cared for reduces the chance that someone will go out looking for the drug. Plus, cravings are easier to endure when a person is not hounded by severe, untreated withdrawal symptoms at the same time.