Methamphetamine is a potent synthetic stimulant that affects the central nervous system. It is highly addictive and can cause serious health complications for people who use it, both short and long-term.

Crystal methamphetamine, which people commonly shorten to “crystal meth” or simply “meth” is a form of methamphetamine that resembles fragments of bluish-white crystal or glass. This article will refer to the substance as meth.

The substance is similar in chemical composition to amphetamine, which is a drug doctors prescribe to treat conditions including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and narcolepsy.

In this article we will explore the symptoms and causes of meth addiction, how doctors diagnose and treat it, and when to speak with a healthcare professional.

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The medically correct term for drug addiction is substance use disorder (SUD). However, it is important to note that although meth use does physically alter the brain, there is a difference between physical dependence and addiction.

The term “addiction” describes a pattern of behavior rather than bodily processes, such as withdrawal. For example, a person may feel compelled to gamble, despite harmful consequences, without ever using drugs or alcohol.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines an SUD as a chronic condition that experts characterize as the inability to control the impulse to use a substance, compulsion to seek out a substance, and continued use despite harmful consequences.

Physical dependence, on the other hand, refers to when a person uses a substance to the point that their body adapts to its presence, and discontinuing use would produce withdrawal symptoms.

Learn more about the differences between addiction and dependence.

Meth use symptoms

As with other substances that may cause a person to develop an SUD, using meth can lead to physical, mental, and social difficulties.

Short-term effects of crystal meth use include:

Long-term methamphetamine use has many other negative consequences, including:

Withdrawal symptoms

Symptoms of meth withdrawal may include:

Meth releases high levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine into the brain’s “reward circuitry” very quickly. Dopamine plays an important role in movement and motor function, motivation, and the reinforcement of rewarding behaviors. The rapid release of dopamine into this system powerfully reinforces the urge to continue using the drug.

Meth causes physical symptoms typical of stimulants such as increasing blood pressure and heart rate and also changes how a person’s brain works.

According to older research from 2013, primate models demonstrate that meth alters brain structures involved in inhibitory control. These changes may impede a person’s ability to suppress the urge to engage in behaviors that are counterproductive or harmful.

Risk factors

In addition to the mechanisms of physical dependence, there are also social, experiential, and environmental factors that may place a person at greater risk of developing crystal meth addiction.

According to a 2018 review of studies, people who have had adverse childhood experiences are more likely to develop methamphetamine-related psychiatric symptoms (MAP).

According to the same review, when compared to people who are not living with MAP, people with lifetime MAP were more likely to:

  • be single
  • be unemployed
  • have a lower level of education
  • be experiencing homelessness

However, the review cautions that further research is necessary to validate these findings.

When diagnosing an SUD, a doctor may physically examine someone and discuss their medical history with them. A healthcare professional may wish to screen for psychiatric symptoms in order to rule out other disorders with similar symptoms. They may also discuss a person’s history of substance use with them.

In order for a doctor to diagnose someone with an SUD, a person should meet at least 2 of 11 diagnostic criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR) over a period of 12 months.

The DSM-5-TR groups these 11 criteria into four distinct classifications. These are:

  • physical dependence
  • impaired control
  • risky use
  • negative social consequences

SUD is a medical diagnosis requiring medical treatment. It is not indicative of a character defect or moral shortcoming and a person cannot manage the condition through sheer willpower.

Instead, treatment centers around:

  • cultivating positive coping skills and techniques
  • managing the physical symptoms of withdrawal
  • supporting someone with an SUD in managing any underlying psychological or circumstantial issues that may have contributed to their use of meth

Drug rehabilitation inpatient programs may offer assistance through the withdrawal process, helping a person to recover from SUD.

Presently, there are no medications to help people recover from meth-related SUD that have received approval from the United States Food and Drug Administration.

However, behavioral health therapies, like contingency management interventions and cognitive behavioral therapy, can help people understand and manage the thoughts, issues, and behaviors that led them to use meth. The Matrix Model, for example, combines:

  • behavioral therapy
  • lifestyle modifications
  • 12-step programs
  • individual counseling
  • family education
  • drug testing

If someone has concerns that they or a loved one may have SUD, NIDA’s website can offer support and guidance to help them find a treatment program and manage their condition.

If someone suspects they may have an SUD, they should speak with a doctor who may provide them with a diagnosis and help refer them to an appropriate specialist treatment center. They can also try calling the SAMSHA helpline at 1-800-662-4357. This service is confidential, free, and available 24 hours a day 365 days a year.

If someone is showing signs of overdosing on meth, it is crucial to call 911 immediately.

Without treatment, an overdose can cause hyperthermia, heart attack, seizure, and may lead to death. Symptoms of overdose may include:

Help is available

Seeking help for addiction may feel daunting or even scary, but several organizations can provide support.

If you believe that you or someone close to you is showing signs of addiction, you can contact the following organizations for immediate help and advice:

Was this helpful?

Meth addiction describes when a person develops SUD as a result of meth use. SUD is a medical condition that requires proper medical treatment.

Treatment focuses on relieving withdrawal symptoms and behavioral therapies that help a person identify and manage situations and behaviors that may have led to them using meth.

With treatment, understanding, and a good support network, it is possible for a person to recover from meth addiction.