What is a Methamphetamine (Meth) Addiction?

What Is Meth?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), methamphetamine is a powerful and highly addictive central nervous system stimulant. Crystal meth is a crystalized form of methamphetamine that is smoked or injected, enabling it to get to the brain quickly in high concentrations. This results in an immediate sense of extreme euphoria – which only lasts for a few minutes. This usually means the person quickly increase the frequency of use.

Original Medicinal Use

Methamphetamine was originally used in decongestants and nasal sprays. Its physical and psychological effects include alertness, positive mood, and appetite suppression. Medically, it is still used in a certain formulation in drugs that treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).

What is Methamphetamine Addiction?

Methamphetamine – known on the street as meth, crystal meth, speed, crank, or tweak is a dangerous stimulant that users like for its quick intense high. In the past several decades, there has been growing use and ER visits due to use of the powerful and dangerous stimulant methamphetamine, which has a similar chemical structure as amphetamine. Meth can be taken different ways – by mouth (orally), smoked, injected, or snorted.

– Meth (Methamphetamine) – Pill or powder form of drug
– Crystal Meth (Crystal Methamphetamine)- Tiny glass fragments/blue-white rock form of drug

Damaging Effects of Meth

According to the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), chronic, long-term use of meth or crystal meth causes many damaging physical and psychological effects for the user. Chronic meth abusers experience anxiety, mental confusion, insomnia, paranoia, aggression, visual/auditory hallucinations, mood disturbances, and delusions.

What is a Meth High?

Meth is abused for its results for a quick and intense high. According to NIDA, effects of a meth high include:

  • Increased wakefulness & physical activity
  • Decreased appetite
  • Increased heart rate & respiration
  • Feeling of ability to do anything

Long-Term Effects of Meth Addiction

According to research in the journal Brain Research, long-term meth use results in reducing the body’s natural production of the neurotransmitter dopamine and the brain’s dopamine receptors. This decreases the brain’s ability to feel pleasure, making the person use more of the drug to be able to feel any pleasure at all. The inability to feel pleasure or anhedonia, may result in intense cravings if drug use is discontinued.

How Meth Abuse Starts

Meth addiction can happen very quickly. For some people, it only takes a few uses because of the drug’s intense and immediate pleasurable effects on the brain.

Meth Tolerance

However, because the meth or crystal meth high is so brief, people often increase the amount or frequency of use, which can quickly cause the brain to develop a tolerance to the drug, which leads to increasing dosage levels to feel the same effects.

Meth Use Factors

People usually start using meth for the same reasons they start using drugs in general. These factors include:

  • Loneliness, depression
  • Stress, anxiety
  • Peer pressure
  • Family history of drug use or mental illness
  • Chaotic childhood, neglect, or abuse
  • Friends or family who use drugs

The family history of drug use may indicate a genetic predisposition for drug addiction but other environmental, behavioral, and co-occurring disorders would also be factors for drug use.

Other Motivations for Meth Use

News reports such as one from the UK’s Daily Mail highlight some of the other motivations people have for using meth specifically, such as:

  • Weight loss – Meth suppresses appetite, but it can result in symptoms similar to anorexia, leading to excessive weight loss.
  • Sexual drive – The euphoria from crystal meth is reported to make sex more exciting, but the drug can decrease feelings of pleasure over time.
  • Energy – Less of a need for sleep and seemingly unending energy are motivating factors to initiate into and continue crystal meth use.
  • High – Many people are attracted to the idea of the extreme euphoria that occurs with crystal meth use.

Who’s Using Meth?

Meth use is prevalent across all demographics but there are some particular groups that are at higher risk of using meth.

  • According to NIDA, adults 26 and older constitute the age group with the highest number of users. The age group of 18-25 has the second highest number of users.
  • A study reported in Medical Daily shows that young people and teenagers with traumatic brain injury are about four times more likely to use meth than those without brain injury.
  • Women are more likely to use meth than men
  • Caucasians use meth more than non-Caucasians

Snapshot: U.S. Meth Use

According to the 2014 National Survey of Drug Use & Health, nearly 570,000 people in the U.S. self-reported meth use in the prior 30 days.

Signs of Meth Addiction

People who use meth exhibit obvious physical signs of drug abuse. As explained on the program Frontline, these signs and symptoms include:

  • Meth mouth – Infections, tooth grinding, tooth decay, and a weakening of tooth structure cause extreme damage to the teeth of people who use meth
  • Lesions and scarring – Acne and skin lesions form easily and do not heal well, resulting in pocked, scarred skin with open wounds
  • Extreme weight loss – People who use meth regularly appear as if they have anorexia, with a bony frame and little fat or muscle, due to high energy expenditures combined with lack of appetite

Meth Addiction Symptoms

People who struggle with meth addiction have typical symptoms of drug abuse, such as:

  • Loss of interest in formerly enjoyable activities
  • Spending more time alone
  • Cravings for meth or crystal meth
  • Trouble developing and sustaining relationships
  • Increasing amount of time seeking/using meth
  • Inability to control meth use and inability to stop

Getting Help for Meth Addiction

Treatment programs around the country are available to help people who are struggling with meth use to find a path to recovery. Most of these programs use the scientifically supported techniques of medical detox, one-on-one behavioral therapy, group therapy, and education to help with recovery. Research-based practices are continually updated with new information, enhancing traditional treatments with the latest means of support whenever possible.

Medication Assisted Treatment

One example is research from the University of California at Los Angeles that showed that naltrexone – a medication used to manage alcohol addiction – is also effective for people dealing with addiction to meth. Treatment programs that are research-based, and incorporate up-to-date, effective treatments, improve the chances of clients achieving long-term recovery by utilizing all means to best benefit the people in their care.


The primary path of recovery begins with a treatment program that helps the individual get to the root of the addiction, address any co-occurring mental health issues, develop coping skills and sober activities for life after treatment. Following treatment, attendance at 12-step meeting and involvement in a local sober community can assist in relapse prevention.

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Brooke Abner,
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