Amphetamines and Addiction Explained
Amphetamines are used around the world both medically and recreationally; unfortunately for many people use becomes abuse and, eventually, addiction, with potentially devastating consequences for the addict and those around them.
Amphetamines are a class of central nervous system (CNS) stimulants derived from the drug amphetamine, which is used to treat various health conditions including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), narcolepsy and obesity, as well as being used (usually illegally) recreationally. Other well-known amphetamines and members of the substituted amphetamine class include the controlled substances methamphetamine (“crystal meth”) and MDMA (“ecstasy”). Amphetamine and related medicines are sold under a variety of brand name, as well as being known by an array of different street names.
When taken recreationally, amphetamines are usually consumed for their stimulating, euphoric and aphrodisiac properties and are commonly found in clubs, raves, festivals, and underground activities such as sex parties. Amphetamine use can be extremely hazardous, with even one instance of consumption potentially leading to death by overdose, and with regular use possibly having an array of long-term implications for physical and mental health. Amphetamines are also considered significantly psychologically addictive, and amphetamine (especially crystal meth) addiction is a very prominent social problem worldwide.
Analysing Amphetamines Chemistry
Amphetamine is more properly known as alpha-methylphenylamine, and exists in combination or individually as two enantiomers (molecules that are mirror images of each other): levoamphetamine and dextroamphetamine. Dextroamphetamine is the more potent of the two enantiomers, though both are used medicinally to treat ADHD and other disorders. An amphetamine molecule consists of nine carbon atoms, thirteen hydrogen atoms and a nitrogen atom in the formula C9H13N. Meanwhile, the many various drugs in the substituted amphetamine class have amphetamine molecules as a “spine”, with many different arrangements of other atoms and molecules around it. While all amphetamines and substituted amphetamines have stimulant properties, their precise effects can vary substantially.
The free base of amphetamine is a colourless liquid at room temperature, but amphetamine is also found in compound salts including amphetamine sulphate (the most frequently found form), amphetamine phosphate, amphetamine saccharate, amphetamine hydrochloride and amphetamine aspartate.
Amphetamines: Brand Names
Some amphetamines and derivatives are marketed around the world as medications, with various different levels of legal restriction and control applied. Some of the most prominent brand names for amphetamines include:
- Adderall XR
- Dyanavel XR
Synonyms for Amphetamines
Amphetamine has the following chemical synonyms:
Routes of Amphetamines Administration
Amphetamine is typically administered via any of various routes, including:
- insufflation (snorting)
Amphetamines: Drug Class
Pharmacologically speaking, amphetamine is a member of the phenethylamine, anorectic and CNS stimulant classes; substituted amphetamines form their own structural class.
In legal terms, in the UK amphetamine is a class-B controlled substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, with maximum sentences of five years’ imprisonment and an unlimited fine, and 14 years’ imprisonment and an unlimited fine, for unauthorised possession and supply respectively.
The Pharmacology of Amphetamines
Amphetamine works on the brain and CNS by affecting the neurons in the reward and executive function pathways, specifically by increasing the concentration and persistence of neurotransmitters including dopamine and norepinephrine. The greater the dose of amphetamine consumed, the more pronounced the impact upon dopamine and norepinephrine levels and, therefore, upon the relevant receptors throughout the brain and CNS.
As well as dopamine and norepinephrine, amphetamine is known to enhance the effects of serotonin, epinephrine, histamine, endogenous opioids, corticosteroids, CART peptides, adrenocorticotropic hormone and glutamate, in particular thanks to its impact upon the brain’s trace amine-associated receptor 1 (TAAR1), monoamine autoreceptors, vesicular monoamine transporters VMAT1 and VMAT2, and the proteins SLC1A1, SLC22A3, and SLC22A5. Amphetamine also induces cocaine– and amphetamine-regulated transcript (CART) gene expression, and inhibits the action of monoamine oxidases.
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What is the Difference Between Amphetamines, Methamphetamine and Meth?
Amphetamine is a drug in the phenethylamine class, and is the parent compound of the substituted amphetamines class of drugs. Both amphetamine itself, and members of the substituted amphetamine class, are often referred to as “amphetamines”, especially when discussing those illegal drugs which are, technically speaking, members of the substituted amphetamine class.
Methamphetamine – for which “meth” is an abbreviation, and “crystal meth” a common street name – is a member of the substituted amphetamine and substituted phenethylamine classes, used most commonly as a recreational drug, but also as a treatment for ADHD and obesity. Methamphetamine is an equal mixture of the enantiomers levomethamphetamine and dextromethamphetamine, and is most frequently found on the street in crystal form (hence “crystal meth”), which is usually smoked, snorted or injected to produce an extremely powerful euphoric high.
What are the Physiological and Neurological Foundations of Amphetamine Addiction?
(in this instance, the compulsive seeking and consumption of amphetamines) which almost invariably requires treatment in order to be overcome.Addiction is frequently confused and/or conflated with dependence, which is a condition which arises when an individual takes a particular substance over sufficient time that their system becomes reliant upon the presence of that substance in order to function normally, and goes into a period of abnormal functioning known as withdrawal syndrome if the substance is withdrawn from the system. Dependence can be either physical, psychological, or both: in the case of physical dependence, the withdrawal symptoms are typically physical (though some psychological symptoms may also develop) as it is the user’s body which has become dependent, whereas psychological dependence is typically associated with psychological withdrawal symptoms (though some physical symptoms may manifest psychosomatically).
Amphetamine abuse is not usually considered to cause physical dependence. However, amphetamines are considered to have a moderate to high psychological dependence liability – that is, frequent consumption of amphetamines is substantially likely to cause psychological dependence. Specifically, the user’s system becomes accustomed to experiencing the frequently elevated levels of chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin resulting from regular amphetamine use, and comes to depend upon the presence of amphetamines in order to maintain hitherto “normal” levels of those chemicals and, therefore, emotional and psychological stability. The more severe the dependence, the more, and more frequently, amphetamine needs to be consumed in order for the user to avoid the negative psychological effects of depleted levels of the neurochemicals in question. This drives further consumption of amphetamine, which in turn intensifies the dependence which is present in the affected user, creating a vicious circle which, again, can typically only be broken via treatment (in particular, detoxification).
Risk Factors for Amphetamines Addiction
Although addiction is now a fairly well understood phenomenon, science has not yet completely established why some people go on to develop addictions while others in similar circumstances do not. However, various factors have been shown to increase the likelihood that a given individual will at some point develop an amphetamines addiction.
A significant number of environmental risk factors for amphetamine addiction have been identified, including:
- easy access to amphetamines
- being prescribed amphetamine-based medication
- associating with a peer group within which amphetamine abuse is widespread
- growing up in a household where substance abuse and addiction are present
- experiencing stressful or challenging life situations
- a personal history of substance abuse and addiction
- working in the entertainment industry
- working in a high-pressure role
- frequenting raves, clubs and parties
Genetics are estimated to be responsible for about 50% of the phenomenon of addiction, and a family history of substance abuse and addiction is the single biggest indicator that an individual is at risk of developing an amphetamines addiction. Other heritable factors that can contribute to the onset of addiction include:
- diseases of genetic origin which require treatment with amphetamine-based medications
- inherited mental health issues
- inherited psychological traits such as a tendency towards risk-taking behaviour which increase the likelihood that a person will abuse amphetamines
- high libido
How Dangerous Are Amphetamines?
Amphetamine use and abuse are associated with a huge range of dangers to health and to life circumstances. Most immediately and obviously, anyone taking amphetamines, even on the first occasion, is at risk of suffering an amphetamine overdose, which could be fatal and even if not could result in permanent impairment. Volatile behaviour and poor decision-making as a result of consuming amphetamines can lead to death and serious injury through accidents or acts of violence, as well as to the contraction of potentially fatal diseases such as HIV/AIDs, through risky sexual behaviour or sharing needles during intravenous amphetamine use.
As with many other stimulants, taking amphetamines places a strain on the user’s heart and cardiovascular system, often exacerbated by the user engaging in protracted physical exertion such as dancing for long periods, intense exercise or prolonged sexual activity. Elevated levels of physical activity whilst under the influence of amphetamines can also cause damage to muscles, bones and other parts of the body, any of which may be permanent.
Amphetamine abuse can lead to addiction, with its own array of serious implications for health. Long-term amphetamine users frequently experience pronounced appetite suppression, potentially made worse by the decision to spend money on amphetamines rather than food, and may suffer from various conditions related to poor diet such as dangerous weight loss or malnutrition. Smoking amphetamines and/or consuming them orally, as well as the grinding of teeth (bruxism) which frequently accompanies amphetamine use, can cause serious damage to teeth and gums. Intravenous administration of amphetamines can result in infection and other damage to the skin, as well as more serious problems to the cardiovascular system, while skin and hair can also be affected by poor nutrition. Amphetamine addicts living in insanitary conditions expose themselves to a very wide range of potential health complaints, many of which can be fatal.
The trade in illegal amphetamines is considered a very serious problem worldwide, and criminal penalties for activities associated with amphetamines, including possession and supply, are frequently very harsh. Amphetamine addicts risk prosecution and potentially imprisonment, with obvious lifelong ramifications, when they obtain and consume amphetamines, as well as if they engage in other criminal activity in order to fund their amphetamine habits, such as theft or other property crimes, prostitution, acts of violence or possessing illegal weapons.
What are the dangers of amphetamines overdose?
An amphetamine overdose can be fatal, with death typically resulting from cardiogenic shock, circulatory collapse, bleeding in the brain, hyperpyrexia, kidney failure, pulmonary hypertension and/or respiratory collapse. Other serious physical symptoms of amphetamine overdose include pulmonary oedema, rhabdomyolysis, fluctuating blood potassium levels, and metabolic acidosis, whilst less severe physical symptoms include an abnormal heartbeat, muscle pain, painful or problematic urination, dilated pupils, tremors, extreme perspiration and rapid breathing. The psychological symptoms of amphetamine overdose include delusions, paranoia, psychosis, compulsive movement, confusion, aggression and pronounced agitation.
If you observe any of these symptoms in someone you know has taken amphetamines, contact the emergency services immediately and, if qualified, administer first aid when necessary. Because of the dangers of psychosis and aggressive behaviour, always prioritise your own safety when dealing with anybody who has taken amphetamines.
Why Are Amphetamines So Addictive?
Taking amphetamines can cause pleasant stimulant, euphoric and aphrodisiac effects, as well as boosting self-confidence, and individuals who enjoy these effects may continue to take amphetamines in order to continue to experience them. Similarly, some longer-term effects of amphetamine use, including weight loss and an improvement in personal physical performance in athletics, swimming, weight training and other activities, can also drive an individual to keep taking amphetamines.
When the user stops taking amphetamines, they may feel the unpleasant psychological effects of significantly reduced levels of the neurochemicals in question, driving them to resume amphetamine consumption in order to dispel those negative feelings. After a while, dependence may develop, and potentially distressing withdrawal symptoms may manifest, which again uses may seek to dispel by resuming their amphetamine abuse.
Amphetamines Abuse and Co-Occurring Addictions
Individuals who become addicted to amphetamines frequently take other substances of abuse, either alongside or alternating with their amphetamine consumption, and may become addicted to these other substances as well as to amphetamines. Theoretically, addictions co-occurring with amphetamine addiction could involve any addictive substance of abuse, though in practice this depends very much on the individual’s personal circumstances and preferences. Some amphetamine addicts also become addicted to other stimulants, including illegal substances such as cocaine and legal products energy drinks, while others who seek to counteract amphetamines’ more pronounced stimulant effects when not in “party” environments via the use of depressants, including opioids, may develop addictions to those drugs. Alcoholism is relatively common amongst amphetamine addicts, as alcohol is used both as a depressant and as an adjunct to amphetamine use.
Behavioural addictions are often found in amphetamine addicts, in particular sex addiction, as amphetamines are frequently used as sex aids, in particular at sex parties, allowing users to continue to engage in sexual activity for very prolonged periods. Some individuals addicted to amphetamines are also addicted to gambling, shopping, and other behaviours offering a comparatively intense psychological “rush”. Amphetamine use lowers inhibitions and decreases the quality of decision-making, making engagement in addictive behaviours significantly more likely.
Treating multiple addictions, including behavioural addictions co-occurring substance use disorders, is typically more complex than treating one addiction by itself, and specialist care is often required.
Mental Disorders and Amphetamine Abuse
As with any form of substance abuse, amphetamine abuse is significantly more likely to affect individuals suffering from pre-existing mental health issues, and can itself cause several such issues. When a mental health disorder co-occurs with a substance use disorder the condition is known as dual diagnosis. Dual diagnosis is more common in amphetamine addicts than in many other types of addiction because of the impact of amphetamines upon the brain and the potential manifestation of psychosis, paranoia and several other conditions which can be caused by amphetamine use, amphetamine withdrawal, and amphetamine overdose.
As with co-occurring addictions, dual diagnosis typically renders treatment much more complicated, as both issues require simultaneous treatment and the treatment of one can often interfere with that of another. Specialist care, potentially at a rehab facility specialising in dual diagnosis, is often required in such cases.
Problematic Signs and Symptoms of Amphetamines Use
For many reasons, including the stigma associated with drug abuse, amphetamine users frequently go significant lengths to conceal their consumption of amphetamines, and it can sometimes be very hard to identify if and when an individual has taken amphetamines. However, some negative physical, psychological and behavioural symptoms may be observed which can be an indication that someone is abusing amphetamines, including:
- Aggression and hostility
- Violent behaviour
- Social withdrawal
- Feelings of entitlement
- Greatly raised levels of self-confidence
- Feeling emotionally numb
- Lowered inhibitions, potentially resulting in problematic behaviour
- Changes to sexual behaviour and libido
- Auditory and/or visual hallucinations
- Confusion Poor decision-making
- Repetitive movements and behaviour
- Incoherent speech
- Problems at work in academia
- Legal problems
- Financial problems
- Poor nutrition
- Abdominal pain
- Muscle spasm or pain
- Chest pain
- Irregular heartbeat
- Blurred vision
- Dental problems
- Skin disorders
What are the Easiest Ways to Spot an Amphetamines User?
As well as the symptoms of amphetamine abuse listed above, some signs may be observed which may indicate that an individual is currently experiencing the effects of amphetamine consumption, the most obvious of which include:
- Increased body temperature
- Accelerated breathing
- Dilated pupils
- Increased levels of energy and alertness
- Decreased fatigue
- Decreased appetite
- Increased blood pressure
- Dry mouth
How do Amphetamines Affect People’s Lives?
It is possible for an individual to take amphetamines in certain manners, such as if prescribed amphetamines to treat a mental health issue, without experiencing serious negative consequences. However, amphetamine abuse can have a catastrophic impact upon the user’s life and upon those of their friends and loved ones.
Most obviously, amphetamine abuse can result in death or serious impairment through overdose, and in a very significant range of other health issues, as discussed in the section “Why are Amphetamines so Dangerous?” above. These issues, as well as affecting the user directly, can have serious emotional, financial and practical consequences for those around them.
Even in the absence of substantial health issues, amphetamine abuse and addiction can be very detrimental to an individual’s life circumstances and prospects. Both raising funds to obtain amphetamines, and the potential consequences for finances of job loss, poor academic performance, poor credit and reputational damage can lead to financial ruin, and potentially to homelessness with obvious implications for health and future prospects. Risky and/or promiscuous sexual behaviour can damage health, reputation and self-esteem and lead to long-term sexual problems and difficulties forming relationships. Negative behaviour including lying, stealing, acts of violence, infidelity and many others, as well as the emotional numbing and cognitive impairment which can result from amphetamine consumption, can permanently harm important relationships including marriages, and amphetamine abuse and addiction is a factor in numerous divorces.
As with any type of substance abuse or addiction, problematic amphetamine use can lead to social withdrawal and isolation, greatly reduced levels of self-esteem and self-worth, and a permanently worsened outlook on the world and society, all of which can have very damaging psychological consequences, potentially leading to self-harm and suicidal ideation.
Amphetamines Withdrawal Symptoms
Someone who has developed an amphetamines dependence may experience amphetamine withdrawal syndrome if they suddenly stop taking amphetamines. Amphetamine dependence is typically psychological rather than physical, though some physical symptoms may develop psychosomatically. Some of the most prominent amphetamine withdrawal symptoms include:
- Aggression, potentially featuring violent behaviour
- Increased appetite
- Suicidal ideation
Amphetamine Addiction Treatment Options
Fortunately, a number of clinics now provide amphetamine addiction treatment services, both public and private, across the UK. As with any form of drug addiction, treatment is typically based upon a combination of detoxification (detox), potentially assisted by medication, and therapy. Detox cleanses the user’s system of substances of abuse and tackles any dependence which may have arisen, while therapy aims to remediate the problematic behaviours and thinking which have resulted in amphetamine abuse and addiction.
Amphetamine addiction treatment may be provided on either an inpatient or outpatient basis. Stays in residential rehabilitation (rehab) facilities for amphetamine addiction typically last between one and three months, while outpatient treatment may last significantly longer. The duration and nature of treatment, and any costs associated with such treatment, can vary very significantly from one case to the next: contact an addiction specialist for more information about treatment options which may be available to you or a loved one.
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Amphetamines Addiction Treatment and Medication
There are currently no medicines fully approved for the direct treatment of amphetamine addiction, though a number of drugs are in the research phase. However, medication does have a number of important roles to play in amphetamine addiction treatment. Most obviously, medications may be provided to address some of the more problematic symptoms of amphetamine withdrawal ahead of, during, and potentially following detox. Drugs such as antidepressants and sleep aids are commonly provided to tackle withdrawal symptoms.
Medication may also be used during treatment to tackle some of the less direct consequences of amphetamine addiction, including any physical health issues which may have arisen, and any mental health disorders – especially depression and anxiety – which may develop as a consequence of some of the indirect impacts of addiction such as relationship breakup and financial worries.
Amphetamines Rehab Process
Every individual’s experience of addiction treatment is unique, and although many commonalities may be found across treatment centres, rehabs themselves may offer very different experiences, varying by facility type, prevailing treatment philosophy, location, client demography and other factors.
Typically, upon entering rehab an individual will be given an initial health assessment allowing doctors to gain as full a picture as possible of their physical and mental condition and the extent of their amphetamine addiction. At this point, doctors may decide to prescribe the client with medication ahead of the detox phase to get an early start on tackling symptoms of withdrawal.
The client will then enter detox, during which they will have 24/7 medical support and may be given further prescriptions. Following detox, once the initial pressures of dependence have been overcome, the client will move through into the therapy/rehabilitation phase where they will benefit from psychotherapy aimed at uncovering and addressing the root causes of their addiction and preparing them for abstinence life outside the facility. They will also enjoy supplementary provisions such as dietary and fitness management, as well as having the support and companionship of their peers also going through amphetamine addiction treatment.
Following the completion of an amphetamine addiction treatment programme, the affected individual will re-enter the outside world having been given various coping mechanisms and psychological defences against relapse. However, recovery from amphetamine addiction is not complete the moment an individual leaves rehab, and rehabs typically provide up to a year’s free aftercare to give clients the best possible foundation for a lasting recovery.
Amphetamines Abuse Statistics
- The World Health Organisation estimates that amphetamines are the second most widely abused drugs worldwide amongst individuals aged 15 to 64.
- According to the United Nations, some 55 million people around the world used amphetamines in 2016.
- One hundred and sixty Britons died in 2016 as a result of amphetamine abuse.
- Over 10 million people in Europe have taken illegal amphetamines.
- Amphetamine was first synthesised in 1887, in Germany.
Getting Help for a Loved One who is Abusing Amphetamines
If you believe someone close to you may have an amphetamine problem, it is understandable that you will want to take action immediately. However, confronting your loved one may do more harm than good and rather than rushing in it is advised that you contact an addiction specialist who will be able to discuss with you the best way to approach the issue. Always prioritise your own safety and that of those around you whenever dealing with someone under the influence of amphetamines.
Get Help Today
If you are struggling with an amphetamine addiction, help is out there: doctors and treatment facilities around the UK can help you overcome your addiction and return to a happy and healthy life. The sooner you can make the decision to reach out to help, the sooner you can get that help – so contact your GP and/or an addiction specialist today to find out about the treatment options which may be open to you.
Take control of your life – get started on the road to recovery
Any addiction can make you feel you have lost control of your life – but with the right help you can take back control and resume the life you want and need. Don’t delay: make that call today and set out on the path to recovery and a life free of the burden of amphetamine addiction.
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