Guide to Ritalin Addiction: Effects, Symptoms, & Treatment

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By: Renaissance Recovery

Clinically Reviewed by: Diana Vo, LMFT

Last Updated: 7/1/2021

ritalin addiction | Renaissance Recovery

Authored By: Joe Gilmore

Table of Contents

Ritalin is one of the most commonly used treatment options for ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Unfortunately, it is also a medication that is commonly abused for the effects that it can carry.

This stimulant can help improve symptoms of ADHD, but it also carries the risk of some side effects just like any medication. If misused or abused, side effects can be more serious and can lead to addiction, this can even require a prescription drug rehab to get help.

If you use Ritalin in accordance with your prescription and doctor’s guidance, side effects should be fleeting. If you find symptoms lingering for more than a few days, speak with your healthcare provider. Ritalin should only ever be used under close medical supervision.

For those that are dealing with Ritalin as a drug of abuse, there are addiction treatment programs that can offer various forms of therapy and even sober living homes to help clients fully commit to their sobriety.

In order to understand how Ritalin works, it’s necessary to examine the condition it’s used to treat.

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man gesturing while asking therapist about ritalin addiction

What Is ADHD?

ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) is a mental health disorder.

This condition can cause abnormally high levels of impulsive and hyperactive behaviors. People suffering from ADHD find it hard to focus on any single task, and they often find it hard to sit still for long periods.

ADHD affects children and adults. The condition is recognized by the APA (American Psychiatric Association). 

Despite over 6 million American children having been diagnosed with ADHD, doctors are still uncertain what causes this condition. Genetics are believed to play a part, and ADHD is also believed to have some neurological origins.

Current research shows that a drop in dopamine levels could be instrumental in ADHD development. Dopamine is a feel-good chemical in the brain that also helps signals move from nerve to nerve. Dopamine is involved with triggering your movements, then, and also your emotional responses.

Other research points toward the gray matter in the brain playing a role in ADHD. Your brain’s gray matter helps with self-control, speech, muscle control, and decision-making. Those with ADHD are known to have a lower volume of gray matter in the brain.

So, ADHD is affecting millions of Americans, yet we’re still not sure why it occurs.

Fortunately, that doesn’t mean ADHD cannot be treated. The condition can be managed effectively with medication as we’ll be exploring below.

Next, though, we’ll highlight some of the most common symptoms associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. 

Symptoms of ADHD

ADHD causes a variety of behavior including the following: 

  • Having problems focusing on tasks
  • Forgetting to complete tasks
  • Interrupting others constantly
  • Being very easily distracted
  • Finding it hard to sit still

If your child has ADHD, they may exhibit some or all of the above symptoms.

Perhaps you feel you may have ADHD yourself. If so, schedule an appointment with your doctor if you feel you could be struggling with this condition.

Different types of medication are used to treat ADHD: 

  • Stimulants
  • Non-stimulants

The most commonly prescribed ADHD medications are CNS stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall. These drugs work by increasing levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain.

If stimulants are ineffective, or if they trigger unpleasant side effects, your doctor may suggest a non-stimulant alternative. These medications like Strattera and Wellbutrin work by elevating levels of norepinephrine in your brain.

As you’ll see when we dive deeper into Ritalin right now, ADHD medication can be effective, but there is the risk of some serious effects developing.

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What is Ritalin?

Ritalin is methylphenidate. As a central nervous system stimulant, this class of drugs has similar effects to cocaine and amphetamines. The pharmacological applications of these drugs are also similar. This medication comes in capsule or tablet form. As mentioned above, it’s typically prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. 

Ritalin is available in both extended-release and sustained-release forms.

If used following ADHD diagnosis and strictly in line with the prescription, Ritalin should exert a calming effect, and it should also help to improve focus. It’s widely believed that Ritalin is comparatively safe when used as intended and prescribed. Unfortunately, despite its effectiveness as an ADHD treatment, Ritalin also carries a high risk of abuse.

Throughout the 1990s, there was a spike in the number of Ritalin prescriptions, and a corresponding increase in Ritalin abuse. While it’s relatively safe when used as intended, Ritalin can be extremely dangerous when misused and abused. One of the main issues is that recreational users often take much higher doses of Ritalin than would be prescribed.

Another inflammatory factor is the way recreational users frequently crush the pills then smoke or inject them. By delivering the medication more rapidly, the effects are also more intense.

A few words now about those effects. What can you expect from Ritalin? 

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Ritalin: Effects on The Body

So, Ritalin is a brand name CNS stimulant used to treat ADHD.

Although Ritalin is classified as a stimulant, it can help improve attention, focus, fidgeting, and listening skills when it’s used to treat ADHD, often in combination with behavioral therapy.

Sometimes, Ritalin is used as a form of treatment for narcolepsy, a serious sleeping disorder. Even if you take Ritalin according to your prescription and see your doctor as directed so your progress can be monitored, you may experience side effects. If, however, you abuse this federally-controlled substance, you run the risk of encountering much more severe side effects.

We’ll walk you through how this medication can impact various areas of the body and mind. 

Ritalin’s effects on the respiratory system

If taken exactly as prescribed, Ritalin shouldn’t cause any problems with your respiratory system.

When you first start taking Ritalin, though, you may feel your airways opening and your breathing rate increasing slightly. This should be temporary as your body adjusts to the medication.

Very high doses of Ritalin and the long-term abuse of the medication can cause irregular breathing.

If you notice any breathing problems in you or anyone you know taking Ritalin, this should be considered a medical emergency. 

Ritalin’s effects on the central nervous system

Ritalin influences the activity of both dopamine and norepinephrine in your brain.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that impacts movement, pleasure, and attention span. Norepinephrine, by contrast, is a stimulant.

Ritalin stops these neurotransmitters from being reabsorbed into the neurons of your brain and so increases their action.

If the medication is used in line with a prescription, it can help with focus, fidgetiness, and self-control. For many people struggling with ADHD, this starts making life easier across the board.

Here are some of the most common side effects you can expect: 

  • Headache
  • Blurred vision
  • Changes to eyesight
  • Problems sleeping
  • Moodiness
  • Irritability
  • Nervousness
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Increased blood pressure

Ritalin is also known to temporarily slow growth in children, particularly during the first two years of treatment. Your doctor will closely monitor your child’s height if they are taking a course of Ritalin. Sometimes, and often over the summer months, your child’s doctor will suggest a break from the medication to encourage growth. This also provides an opportunity outside of school to assess how your child manages without the medication.

Like all CNS stimulants, Ritalin can be strongly habit-forming. Taking large doses can induce a feeling of euphoria.

If you persist in taking Ritalin, especially in high doses, dependence can easily build. Also, if you abruptly discontinue use, you might experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. These negative effects include depression, fatigue, and problems sleeping.

Tapering off Ritalin gradually under the care of your doctor is the best solution. When Ritalin is abused, it can bring about feelings of hostility and paranoia.

If you take high doses of Ritalin, watch out for the following side effects: 

  • Shakiness
  • Severe twitching
  • Confusion
  • Mood changes
  • Delusions
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures

You should seek immediate medical attention if you or anyone you know experiences any of the above effects after taking Ritalin. 

Ritalin’s effects on the digestive system

Some people taking Ritalin find their appetite is reduced.

Nausea and stomach ache are also common side effects. Vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain frequently occur.

Long-term misuse of Ritalin can cause malnutrition and other related health problems. Unintentional weight loss is a common by-product of Ritalin abuse.

Ritalin’s effects on the circulatory system

Ritalin is known to cause circulation problems.

You could find your skin turning blue or red. Your toes and fingers may feel cold or painful.

As stimulants raise your body temperature, you may experience changes in blood pressure and heart rate.

If you experience any circulatory problems while taking Ritalin, inform your doctor immediately. Using Ritalin has been linked to Raynaud’s disease, so don’t take any chances.

If you feel jittery or irritable in the short term, this is normal as your body adjusts to the medication. You should have regular check-ups to monitor your BP and heart rate, though.

If you have any preexisting heart or blood pressure problems, Ritalin should only be taken with extreme caution. You could otherwise increase your risk of stroke and heart attack.

High doses of Ritalin can also cause life-threatening complications like seizures and heart failure. 

Ritalin’s effects on the reproductive system

Taking Ritalin can cause painful, prolonged erections in males. This usually only occurs after an increase in dosage, or after extended use of the medication. 

Ritalin’s effects on the muscular and skeletal systems

Taking Ritalin long-term can cause musculoskeletal complications, especially when misused or taken in high doses. You could experience weakness, muscle pain, and joint pain.

As you can see, then, taking Ritalin, particularly if you take it without a proper prescription, is a risky business.

How does this medication stack up against Adderall, then? 

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Ritalin vs Adderall

These medications have a number of similarities.

Both Ritalin and Adderall are Schedule II controlled substances. Both drugs are stimulants, and both are used to treat ADHD. Ritalin and Adderall are both habit-forming.

The main difference between Ritalin and Adderall comes in the formulations. 

  • Ritalin: Instant release (3 to 4 hours), sustained-release (6 to 8 hours), long-acting (8 hours)
  • Adderall: Instant release (4 to 6 hours), extended-release (12 hours)

So far, so good. How can you tell, though, if a loved one is abusing Ritalin and addicted to the medication?

Ritalin: Common Signs of Addiction

Ritalin works like all stimulants by increasing the amount of dopamine hitting the brain’s neuron receptors. Dopamine occurs naturally in the brain, and the chemical is instrumental in activating the brain’s reward center. This system naturally reinforces behavior that triggers dopamine production. Ritalin serves to block this transmission of signals and to regulate dopamine levels. Resultantly, you can expect improved focus, attention, and impulse control.

On the flip-side, Ritalin causes more dopamine than necessary to hit those brain receptors in those who do not have ADHD.

Taking Ritalin repeatedly instills it as a learned behavior. This means that those dependent on Ritalin will continue using the drug despite negative consequences.

If you notice a loved one who wants to stop using Ritalin but seems unable to do so, they may already be addicted.

Here are some other common markers of Ritalin addiction: 

  • Taking more Ritalin than usual
  • Continuing to take Ritalin for longer than prescribed
  • Getting cravings to use Ritalin
  • Experiencing sudden mood swings
  • Spending lots of time obtaining and using Ritalin
  • Giving up important activities because of your Ritalin use
  • Needing to use more Ritalin to achieve the same effect
  • Neglecting your responsibilities
  • Using Ritalin time and again in spite of the danger it causes
  • Continuing to use Ritalin even if it’s affecting your relationships
  • Refusing to stop taking Ritalin even when you admit you have a psychological or physical problem
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms if you abruptly discontinue using Ritalin

Now you’ve seen the damage that Ritalin can do, how can Ritalin addiction be treated?

an image of people outside celebrating from Ritalin addiction recovery

Ritalin Rehab at Renaissance Recovery

Treatment programs for Ritalin abuse are highly personalized. If you started using Ritalin at a young age, you may find it much tougher to stop using the medication. You’ll have spent much of your life dependent on the drug.

Any successful program for Ritalin addiction will focus on the thought processes and behaviors underpinning abuse. Are you using the stimulant recreationally, or do you use Ritalin in an attempt to excel, whether academically or in the workplace?

Behavioral therapies can be used to treat Ritalin addiction. Cognitive-behavioral therapy will help you to identify triggers for abuse, and you’ll also learn better coping skills. You may find you can successfully manage your ADHD symptoms without medication after all.

You could consider Strattera, an alternative and non-addictive ADHD medication. 

A combination of non-addicting drugs and psychotherapy can effectively mitigate ADHD in many patients.

Getting over any addiction is tough. Ritalin is no exception. The thing is, using this drug repeatedly will inevitably lead to physical dependence along with unpleasant withdrawal symptoms if you try to quit. These symptoms can be better managed if you follow a proper treatment program.

Even if you manage to successfully detox from Ritalin, though, this is only the first step on your road to recovery. Here at Renaissance Recovery, we’re here to help you every step of the way. So put the Ritalin down and call us instead at 866.330.9449 and we’ll help you get back on track at our Ritalin rehab.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country

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