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Crystal Meth Addiction Explained

Methamphetamine – also commonly known as “meth” or “crystal meth” – came to many people’s attention thanks to its role in the highly successful TV show Breaking Bad. However, long before the exploits of Walter “Heisenberg” White reached our screens, crystal meth was wreaking havoc and destroying lives on streets and in homes around the world. Meth addiction is a very significant social problem, claiming thousands of lives every year.

What Is Crystal Meth?

Methamphetamine (a shortened form of N-methylamphetamine) is a highly potent stimulant of the central nervous system (CNS) primarily used recreationally, but which also has a limited number of medical uses. When used recreationally, methamphetamine is typically found in a crystalline form which gives it its more familiar street name “crystal meth”. [1]

Properly speaking, “methamphetamine” refers to a mix of two amines, levomethamphetamine and dextromethamphetamine, combined in a free base form [2]. This is when active ingredients are “freed” via various processes and reactions from their inactive bases.Dextromethamphetamine, which may also be produced and obtained by itself, is a much stronger CNS stimulant than levomethamphetamine.

Taking meth produces an intense euphoric “high”, which can feel extremely physically and psychologically pleasurable. It can last at a peak for half an hour or more, and at a noticeable level for up to 12 hoursduring which feelings of great confidence, exhilaration and sexual excitement may manifest. However, the “crash” following ameth highcan leave users feeling desolate, depressed, craving more of the drug to regain that previously pleasurable state.

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Partly because of that drive to repeat consumption immediately, meth is considered highly psychologically addictive. Meth addiction is now recognised as being a significant social and public health challenge in many parts of the world. Though all demographics are susceptible to meth abuse and addiction, the drug is especially associated with individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and with particular social groups especially including the gay community within which meth is comparatively well-established as a party and sex drug.

Crystal meth use has not reached the same problematic levels in the UK as it has in the USA and other parts of the world. In 2014, around 240 people approached health services asking for treatment for crystal meth addiction, compared with over 8,000 people requesting similar help for cocaine-related issues. Nevertheless, it is recognised as a growing problem and has been a factor in a number of deaths in recent years. The risks associated with crystal meth use have caused it to be treated as one of the most serious and dangerous illegal drugs in the UK. It is categorised as a class-A controlled substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, with penalties for possession and supply possibly reaching seven years’ imprisonment and an unlimited fine, and life imprisonment and an unlimited fine respectively. [3]

Methamphetamine was first synthesised in 1893 by Nagai Nagayoshi, Professor of Chemistry and Pharmacy at Tokyo Imperial University. Methamphetamine hydrochloride, the salt form of methamphetamine, which is the basis for most meth powder and tablets, was developed in 1919. During the Second World War, methamphetamine – sold under the brand name Pervitin – was widely used by armed forces on all sides – because of its stimulant effects and its ability to induce extended wakefulness in users. However, the side-effects of methamphetamine use – including psychotic episodes frequently resulting in war crimes and attacks on superior officers – were soon recognised to be so problematic that use began to be restricted from 1940 onwards.

Although such dangerous effects became known to many doctors and public health officials during and after the war, methamphetamine began to be included in a number of medicinal products including diet pills. The brand Obetrol became especially popular in America and beyondduring the 1950s and ‘60s.

Methamphetamine’s addictive properties became increasingly clear during this period, as did its potential to cause significant psychological and physical harm in users over time. Many governments began to regulate methamphetamine use from the late ‘60s onwards: for example, the sale of products containing methamphetamine by retail pharmacists in the UK was banned in 1968. Nevertheless, it continues to be used medicinally in certain circumstances in many parts of the world.

Its strongly euphoric, exhilarant and aphrodisiac properties, the comparative ease with which it may be manufactured, its relatively low cost and widespread availability have seen methamphetamine become established as the second most commonly consumed (after cannabis) illicit recreational drug worldwide.

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What is it also called?

Methamphetamine is provided under a variety of street names in the UK and around the world, including:

  • meth
  • crystal meth
  • crystal
  • Tina
  • Christina
  • Christine
  • Crissy
  • Xtina
  • yaba
  • ice
  • glass
  • shards
  • crank
  • whizz

Where does it come from?

A good deal of the methamphetamine consumed by users comes from industrial-level production facilities, especially those based in some parts of the developing world where regulation is sometimes less strictly or easily enforced. However, methamphetamine can also be produced from some medicines containing pseudoephedrine via processes using various readily available household or industrial chemicals. Therefore, it is also often made on a smaller scale in “meth labs” set up in homes, warehouses, industrial units, or even caravans or sheds. The process of manufacturing methamphetamine can be very dangerous, with a significant risk of poisoning or burns, and premises used for that purpose are frequently rendered uninhabitable due to the absorption into walls, furniture and appliances of some toxic chemicals.

How do people take it?

People consume meth in a variety of ways. It is most commonly smoked (usually in dedicated “meth pipes”, typically glass), injected intravenously or insufflated (snorted). However, meth can also be taken in tablet form, or inserted into the rectum or vagina for absorption into the body. Smoking and injecting meth provide the most immediate and intense highs.

How does it make you feel?

The meth high is infamously intense and seductive, producing a state of great euphoria and exhilaration in the user which is typically accompanied by feelings of exaggerated confidence, invigoration, heightened sexual desire and sensuality, increased alertness, greater focus and concentration, and increased sensitivity to physical stimulus. Users can feel a sense of empowerment and can become extremely talkative, though not necessarily coherent.They may also feel physiological change such as increased heart rate, changes in body temperature, increasingly rapid and shallow breathing, jittery eyes and the compulsion to clench jaws and/or grinding teeth.

Users can feel a sense of empowerment and can become extremely talkative, though not necessarily coherent.They may also feel physiological change such as increased heart rate, changes in body temperature, increasingly rapid and shallow breathing, jittery eyes and the compulsion to clench jaws and/or grinding teeth.

When the meth high wears off, however, the consequent crash can be extremely unpleasant, leaving users with feelings of dysphoria, dissatisfaction with their environment or being, a variety of unpleasant physical symptoms, andemotions such as shame anger and despair. This can drive users to want to re-engage in further meth consumption as a means of dispelling these negative feelings and sensations, which is a significant impulse behind the phenomenon of meth bingeing.[4]

How long does it last?

How long the effects of one dose of methamphetamine last will depend on various factors including the size and potency of the dose, the means of administration, whether or not the individual in question has a tolerance to methamphetamine, and the physiology of the user. Typically, the peak experience of the meth high (sometimes known as the “rush” or “flash”) will last between tenminutes and half an hour. The high can persist at noticeable and enjoyable levels for anywhere between four and twelvehours.

Meth intoxication frequently involves taking more than one dose of methamphetamine over time, as users seek to extend their experience of the meth high and stave off the inevitable crash. Meth bingeing – taking multiple doses of meth in succession – can last many hours or even days.

What are the effects?

Taking methamphetamine over the short or long term has numerous effects on the mind and body which are not limited to those comprising the euphoric meth high. Some of those effects may include:

  • euphoria
  • invigoration
  • increase sex drive
  • increased sensitivity to physical stimulus
  • sense of alertness
  • intensify concentration and focus
  • greater self-confidence
  • increased heart rate
  • fluctuating body temperature
  • accelerated breathing
  • grinding teeth and/or clenching jaws
  • jittery eyes
  • dysphoria
  • agitation
  • restlessness
  • aggression
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • desire to self-harm
  • sexual dysfunction
  • anhedonia
  • seizures
  • cerebral bleeding
  • paranoia
  • hallucinations
  • psychosis
  • delirium
  • delusions
  • mood swings
  • breakdown of skeletal muscle
  • dilated pupils
  • hyperactivity
  • dry mouth
  • flushed skin
  • cardiac arrhythmia
  • blurred vision
  • diarrhoea
  • nausea
  • constipation
  • headaches
  • excessive sweating
  • tremors
  • muscle spasms
  • twitching
  • insomnia
  • obsessive behaviours
  • suicidal ideation
  • tolerance
  • dependence
  • overdose potentially resulting in death

The Difference Between Ice and Meth

Put simply, all “ice” is methamphetamine, but not all methamphetamine is “ice”.

What is “ice”?

“Ice” is one of the street names for the crystal form of methamphetamine – i.e., crystal meth. Crystal meth is only one form of methamphetamine, but its chemical structure is very similar and the active ingredients are the same. Methamphetamine is produced in crystal form because that is the form in which its effects are most strongly and rapidly felt, and therefore is of most interest to recreational users.

What is meth?

Meth can also be found in various other forms, including in tablets, which do not have the same immediacy or intensity of effect.

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Uses of Meth

Methamphetamine was first developed with medical uses in mind. However, its negative side effects and substantial abuse potential have caused it to be withdrawn from medical use in most instances, and it is now predominantly a recreational substance.

Medical

Methamphetamine is not currently used within the NHS in the UK, and its possession is illegal. However, in the United States and elsewhere, methamphetamine is an ingredient in some medications which have been approved for the treatment of ADHD and obesity, and is also sometimes prescribed for narcolepsy and hypersomnia. Some nasal decongestant products also contain levomethamphetamine, which does not have the same potential to cause euphoria and addiction as dextromethamphetamine. [5]

Recreational

Meth is widely established as a recreational drug in many parts of the world. Although its use in the UK is comparatively limited, it is nevertheless a drug of choice for many people. It is not viewed as a common “rave drug”. It is more commonly used by individuals, couples or in small groups, and usually in domestic settings (though it is not impossible to find it at parties or in clubs). Meth is especially popular as a sex drug – particularly within the gay community – because of its aphrodisiac properties and its ability to enable prolonged and repeated sexual activity.[6]

Can You Get Addicted?

Methamphetamine is strongly psychologically addictive, and anyone taking the drug exposes themselves to the risk of developing an addiction. While addiction is very unlikely to develop immediately after only one dose, the strong compulsion to repeat meth consumption once its effects subside means that even only one instance of meth consumption should be considered dangerous in terms of opening the door to addiction.

Why is meth addictive?

Addiction is a disorder of the brain’s reward centres, in which repeatedly engaging in a particular rewarding behaviour causes those reward centres to adjust neurochemically to the experience of that behaviour. The increased production of chemicals such as dopamine when the behaviour is engaged in causes the individual to want to engage in it once again. The absence of those chemicals when the individual desists from the behaviour in question can cause unpleasant feelings and emotions which also drive the desire to repeat the behaviour in order to dispel them. The development of these mechanisms leads to the phenomenon we know as addiction.

Taking this drug over and over again, leadsto the adjustment in brain chemistry which constitutes the development of addiction. Moreover, the post-high crash involving decreased levels of dopamine and other relevant chemicals in the brain can be unpleasant and even distressing, which enhances the compulsion to renew the consumption of meth in order to drive them away.

Methamphetamine is not considered physically addictive in the way that other substances such as opioids or alcohol can be. The dependence a user can develop is primarily psychological. This means that symptoms of withdrawal are also typically psychological in nature, though some physical symptoms have been observed to manifest psychosomatically. However, in those terms, meth is considered to have a very high addiction liability, with psychological dependence manifesting fairly quickly. The desire to drive off unpleasant and distressing symptoms of withdrawal is another factor prompting continued use of methamphetamine and the persistence of addiction.[7]

Dangers of meth addiction

Addiction of any type can have catastrophic consequences for the addict. It canimpact an individual’s physical and mental health, relationships, professional and academic standing and prospects, reputation, finances, criminal record, general life prospects and circumstances, and sense of self-worth and purpose. Meth addiction is an especially problematic condition thanks to the serious health risks posed by methamphetamine abuse – both directly, and as a result of risky behaviour during meth intoxication – and the particular stigma associated with crystal meth. It is often viewed as a “dirty” or “low-status” substance of abuse.

Effects of Crystal Meth Abuse

Alongside its immediate and very short-term effects including the high and subsequent crash that meth consumption causes, and the potential for addiction to develop, crystal meth abuse has numerous detrimental effects over both short and long terms.

Effects on the brain

Crystal meth abuse is known to have various effects upon the brain and central nervous system. It is known to be associated with an increased rate of neuronal death, in particular in parts of the brain including the hippocampus, the frontal and prefrontal cortex, and the cerebellum. Meth abuse is also known to damage the glial cells in the central nervous system and to reduce the amount of white matter in neurons making them less efficient. It can also cause impairment to dopamine and serotonin transporters, which can result in long-term depression and dysphoria.

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Effects on the body

In the short term, crystal meth abuse can cause intense sexual excitability, increased blood pressure, accelerated breathing, fluctuating body temperature, jittery eyes, jaw-clenching and teeth-grinding, and dilated pupils, as well as posing a risk of overdose which can result in seizures and potentially death.

Longer-term meth abuse is associated with a wide variety of risks to physical and mental health.

Physical Health Risks

The most obvious immediate risk to health posed by meth abuse is the possibility of overdose, which can be fatal. Symptoms of meth overdose include dilated pupils, irregular heart rate, chest pains, high body temperature, hypertension, stomach pain, problems breathing, agitation, paranoia, stroke, heart attack, and seizures. If you observe any of these symptoms in someone known to have taken crystal meth, it is vital that you contact emergency services immediately.

Other risks to health associated with meth abuse include organ damage (especially to the heart, lungs and liver), permanent brain damage and conditions related to poor hygiene and nutrition.

Meth mouth

Heavy methamphetamine users may suffer dental and other oral problems from a condition commonly known as “meth mouth”. The causes of “meth mouth” are somewhat debated. Contrary to popular opinion, the condition is not thought to be primarily caused by smoking meth, as it more commonly presents in individuals who inject the drug. Meth mouth is typically characterised by rotting or missing teeth, halitosis and gum disease.

Sexually transmitted infection

Because of meth’s aphrodisiac and disinhibitory properties, it is associated with the engagement in risky and/or promiscuous sexual behaviour. Moreover, some meth addicts resort to prostitution as a means of funding their habits. As a result, meth abuse is linked with a much higher than average rate of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C (exacerbated by the increased risks associated with intravenous drug use).

Mental Health Risks – Psychological

Methamphetamine abuse poses a number of mental health risks, both resulting directly from the impact of the drug itself and as a consequence of the deleterious impact of addiction upon life circumstances and prospects. Especially prominent mental health issues associated with meth abuse include depression and anxiety, psychosis, delusions, paranoia and insomnia.

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Neurotoxicity and neuroimmune response

Methamphetamine is known to be neurotoxic to dopamine neurons, and to cause neurodegeneration particularly centred upon white matter and the hippocampus. It is also associated with an increased risk of Parkinson’s disease.

Dependence and Withdrawal

Dependence results when the system of someone consuming a substance of abuse adjusts to the regular presence of that substance and becomes reliant upon certain levels of it to function normally. When the substance is withdrawn from the system – for instance, if someone addicted to crystal meth stops taking the substance suddenly, willingly or otherwise – a period of abnormal functioning may result while the system readjusts and re-normalises. During this time, a range of unpleasant and potentially dangerous symptoms may develop which are collectively known as withdrawal syndrome.

Methamphetamine is not considered to have a significant physical dependence liability, but it has a high psychological dependence liability. Withdrawal symptoms associated with meth addiction are primarily psychological in nature, though some physiological symptoms may manifest psychosomatically. Some more common meth withdrawal symptoms include:

  • strong cravings
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • paranoia
  • mood swings
  • elevated body temperature
  • insomnia
  • fatigue
  • restlessness
  • itching
  • altered eating habits and appetite
  • changes in sex drive
  • sexual dysfunction
  • anhedonia

Although withdrawing from crystal meth dependence is not usually considered physically dangerous, it can be extremely unpleasant. Some individuals going through withdrawal resort to self-harm or even consider suicide as a means of escaping the condition. As a result, withdrawal should never be attempted without medical assistance: if you suffer from a meth addiction and are contemplating attempting to overcome it, including going through withdrawal, always speak with your GP and an addiction specialist about getting the necessary help.

Signs and Symptoms of Meth Use and Abuse

Because of the stigma associated with substance abuse, and meth abuse in particular, users often go to great lengths to conceal the consumption of methamphetamine. It may be difficult or even impossible to identify even in someone you know well. However, certain signs and symptoms of meth use may be observed, though it is important to note that some of these may well have different and less concerning causes.

What are the signs someone is abusing meth?

Some common signs of meth abuse include:

  • frequent intoxication
  • mood swings and emotional volatility
  • bouts of aggression and irritability
  • smelling of smoke with a chemical aroma
  • associating with a new peer group
  • changes in vocabulary
  • possessing paraphernalia associated with meth consumption
  • a preoccupation with obtaining and consuming meth
  • loss of interest in previously valued activities
  • damage to relationships
  • social withdrawal and isolation
  • depression and despair
  • impaired performance at work or in academia
  • changes to sex drive and sexual behaviour
  • the manifestation of physical and mental health conditions associated with meth use
  • visible muscle spasms and tics
  • impaired financial circumstances
  • lack of care regarding appearance and hygiene
  • burns on fingers or lips
  • skin infections for intravenous use
  • engagement in criminal activity
  • changes to sleeping and eating patterns

Treating Methamphetamine Addiction

Fortunately, in recent years the awareness and understanding of the condition within the British medical community has grown. A number of facilities have been set up across the UK with strong expertise in treating meth addiction. With professional help even the longest-term meth addicts may be able to overcome their addictions.

How meth addiction is treated

There are many ways to approach addiction treatment, but the most successful is usually considered to be residential rehabilitation (rehab). During rehab, an addict is given a holistic addiction treatment programme aimed at combating both immediate pressures of dependence and the underlying psychological causes of addiction and enabling them to return to a life free of substance abuse with a healthier concept of self and an immeasurably more positive outlook on the world.

Rehab may be attended on either an inpatient or outpatient basis. Inpatient stays typically last between 30 and 90 days, though both shorter and more intensive and longer ones may be available depending on circumstances and the facility in question. Residential treatment is provided in a secure, confidential, calm and pleasant environment suited to healing and reflection, with medical and psychiatric professionals on site to provide the necessary treatment and therapy and to ensure the safety and well-being of clients.Outpatient treatmentcan be perfectly suited to some individuals who cannot afford the time out from work or family life which inpatient treatment would entail.However, it can cause problems in that it does not remove the addict from their daily circumstances
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and familiar environment in which substance abuse and addiction have developed. Some appointments can be attended on-site and over the phone or email, while other elements of the treatment programme need to be conducted independently.

Addiction treatment in rehab is typically divided into a detoxification phase (during which withdrawal may manifest) and a therapy phase. Various other elements are included such as the provision of dietary and fitness plans and a structured after-care plan.

Detoxing from crystal meth

Detoxification (detox) is an indispensable initial element to treating addiction. Unless an addict’s system is cleansed of all substances of abuse, including crystal meth, they will not be free of the immediate pressures of dependence. The effect of intoxication and will be unable to engage fully in other aspects of treatment. Detox during treatment will be managed and monitored by experienced professionals who may be able to provide certain medications to alleviate some of the worst symptoms of withdrawal.

Crystal meth addiction therapy

Therapy is the foundation of addiction treatment. A wide variety of different approaches to therapy may be provided, in settings including group and one-to-one environments. Therapy uncovers and explores the fundamental psychological causes of addiction and allows the addict to examine and remediate the problematic behaviours which have resulted in its development. Therapy also provides addicts with defence mechanisms against relapse, as well as giving tools with which to confront challenging circumstances and emotions which may have been ignored or suppressed during the period of substance abuse.

Crystal meth addiction recovery

It is very important to bear in mind that recovery is not complete the moment weleave a treatment facility or complete atreatment programme. Recovery is a long-term process. For many people, a lifelong one. It requires constant diligence, dedication, and a determination to avoid falling back into addiction.

While some who have gone through treatment manage to maintain complete abstinence, many do stumble into relapse. However, one or even occasional instances of relapse do not necessarily mean complete failure and a return to addiction. Relapse should be viewed as a hurdleon the path to recovery rather than as falling off that path completely. Nevertheless, relapse prevention is a critical aspect of recovery and maintenance. Good treatment facilities will provide aftercare plans incorporating regular check-ups, attendance at self-help groups and support meetings and possibly elements such as individual counselling or ongoing therapy as a means of maximising the chance of continued, hard-won abstinence.

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Get Help Today

If you are struggling with a methamphetamine addiction, you are genuinely risking your life – as well as potentially permanently impairing your life circumstances and prospects. If you wish to overcome your addiction, however, there is help out there which can change and even save your life. The sooner you can reach out for that help, the sooner you can begin to receive it. Get in touch with your GP and/or an addiction specialist today to discuss your condition and circumstances and to discover the treatment options which may be available to you. Picking up that phone could be the first step on the road back to health and happiness, and to the life you want and deserve: make the change today.

Related FAQ’s

Can a person overdose on methamphetamine?
Yes. Methamphetamine overdose is a dangerous and potentially fatal condition. Overdosing on methamphetamine can result in seizures, heart attack, respiratory arrest and other factors which can cause death or permanent impairment.
How long does crystal meth stay in your system?
This depends on a number of factors including how long you have been taking it, how much you have been taking, and how you have been taking it, as well as on your own physiology. Meth can be detected in urine for up to five days after the last dose, and in blood for up to three days afterwards. It can be detectable in hair for up to three months after you stop taking meth.
How do I know if someone is on crystal meth?
The symptoms of meth consumption may appear quite distinctive especially if someone has taken large quantities of the drug. They may exhibit extremely bizarre behaviour (“tweaking”), pronounced sexual arousal and desire, aggression, sweating, dilated pupils, extreme talkativeness and a range of other behaviour. However, if someone is addicted to crystal meth but not currently intoxicated, their drug use may be much harder to identify. If you are worried that someone you know may be taking crystal meth, contact an addiction specialist about your concerns.
How does meth affect the brain?
Methamphetamine can have extremely deleterious consequences on the brain including causing neuronal death and other permanent brain damage which can result in cognitive impairment and other extremely serious consequences.
What does crystal meth do to you?
In the short term, crystal meth can create an intense and highly pleasurable euphoric high which is often associated with highly elevated levels of sexual desire and arousal, an expanded sense of self-worth and confidence, and feelings of great energy and purpose. However, it also poses the risk of very significant damage to physical and mental health including some conditions that can cause the death of someone taking crystal meth, and can lead to dependence and addiction with their own broad array of potentially catastrophic consequences.
What is “shake and bake”meth?
“Shake and bake” meth is a method of manufacturing methamphetamine very quickly, involving putting various ingredients into a vessel (typically a drink bottle) and shaking it in order to create the reactions which can produce meth. Shake and bake can be very dangerous, with explosions resulting in chemical burns and poisoning a significant risk. Moreover, the substances produced by the shake and bake process may themselves be toxic, aside from the toxicity of crystal meth itself.

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