Methamphetamines

Methamphetamine is commonly known as “speed,” “meth,” and “chalk.” In its smoked form, it is often referred to as “ice,” “crystal,” “crank,” and “glass.” It is a white, odorless, bitter-tasting crystalline powder that easily dissolves in water or alcohol. It was developed early in this century from its parent drug, amphetamine, and was used originally in nasal decongestants and bronchial inhalers. Like amphetamine, it causes increased activity, decreased appetite, and a general sense of well-being. The effects of methamphetamine can last 6 to 8 hours. After the initial “rush,” there is typically a state of high agitation that in some individuals can lead to violent behavior.

How is methamphetamine used?

Methamphetamine comes in many forms and can be smoked, snorted, orally ingested, or injected. The drug alters moods in different ways, depending on how it is taken.

In the 1980’s, “ice,” a smokable form of methamphetamine, came into use. Ice is a large, usually clear crystal of high purity that is smoked in a glass pipe like crack cocaine. The smoke is odorless, leaves a residue that can be resmoked, and produces effects that may continue for 12 hours or more.

As with similar stimulants, methamphetamine most often is used in a “binge and crash” pattern. Because tolerance for methamphetamine occurs within minutes – meaning that the pleasurable effects disappear even before the drug concentration in the blood falls significantly – users try to maintain the high by binging on the drug.

What are the effects of methamphetamine abuse?

As a powerful stimulant, methamphetamine, even in small doses, can increase wakefulness and physical activity and decrease appetite. A brief, intense sensation, or rush, is reported by those who smoke or inject methamphetamine. Oral ingestion or snorting produces a long-lasting high instead of a rush, which reportedly can continue for as long as half a day. Both the rush and the high are believed to result from the release of very high levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine into areas of the brain that regulate feelings of pleasure.

Methamphetamine abuse has toxic effects. In animals, a single high dose of the drug has been shown to damage nerve terminals in the dopamine-containing regions of the brain. The large release of dopamine produced by methamphetamine is thought to contribute to the drug’s toxic effects on nerve terminals in the brain. High doses can elevate body temperature to dangerous, sometimes lethal, levels, as well as cause convulsions.

Long-term methamphetamine abuse results in many damaging effects, including addiction. In addition to being addicted to methamphetamine, chronic methamphetamine users exhibit symptoms that can include violent behavior, anxiety, confusion, and insomnia. They also can display a number of psychotic features, including paranoia, auditory hallucinations, mood disturbances, and delusions (for example, the sensation of insects creeping on the skin, which is called “formication”). The paranoia can result in homicidal as well as suicidal thoughts.

Short-term effects can include:
  • Increased attention and decreased fatigue
  • Increased activity
  • Decreased appetite
  • Euphoria and rush
  • Increased respiration
  • Hyperthermia
Long-term effects can include:
  • Dependence and addiction psychosis
    • paranoia
    • hallucinations
    • mood disturbances
    • repetitive motor activity
  • Stroke
  • Weight loss

 

What are the medical complications of methamphetamine abuse?

Methamphetamine can cause a variety of cardiovascular problems. These include rapid heart rate, irregular heartbeat, increased blood pressure, and irreversible, stroke-producing damage to small blood vessels in the brain. Hyperthermia (elevated body temperature) and convulsions occur with methamphetamine overdoses, and if not treated immediately, can result in death.

Chronic methamphetamine abuse can result in inflammation of the heart lining, and among users who inject the drug, damaged blood vessels and skin abscesses. methamphetamine users also can have episodes of violent behavior, paranoia, anxiety, confusion, and insomnia. Heavy users also show progressive social and occupational deterioration. Psychotic symptoms can sometimes persist for months or years after use has ceased.

Acute lead poisoning is another potential risk for methamphetamine users. A common method of illegal methamphetamine production uses lead acetate as a reagent.Production errors therefore may result in methamphetamine contaminated with lead. There have been documented cases of acute lead poisoning in intravenous methamphetamine users.

Fetal exposure to methamphetamine also is a significant problem in the United States. At present, research indicates that methamphetamine abuse during pregnancy may result in prenatal complications, increased rates of premature delivery, and altered neonatal behavioral patterns, such as abnormal reflexes and extreme irritability. Methamphetamine abuse during pregnancy may be linked also to congenital deformities.

Are methamphetamine users at risk for contracting HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C?

Increased HIV and hepatitis B and C transmission are likely consequences of increased methamphetamine abuse, particularly in individuals who inject the drug and share injection equipment. Infection with HIV and other infectious diseases is spread among injection drug users primarily through the re-use of contaminated syringes, needles, or other paraphernalia by more than one person.

Research also indicates that methamphetamine and related psychomotor stimulants can increase the libido in users, in contrast to opiates which actually decrease the libido. However, long-term methamphetamine use may be associated with decreased sexual functioning, at least in men. Additionally, methamphetamine seems to be associated with rougher sex, which may lead to bleeding and abrasions. The combination of injection and sexual risks may result in HIV becoming a greater problem among methamphetamine abusers than among opiate and other drug abusers, something that already seems to be occurring in California.

What treatments are effective for methamphetamine users?

At this time the most effective treatments for methamphetamine addiction are cognitive behavioral interventions. These approaches are designed to help modify the patient’s thinking, expectancies, and behaviors and to increase skills in coping with various life stressors. Methamphetamine recovery support groups also appear to be effective adjuncts to behavioral interventions that can lead to long-term drug-free recovery.

There are currently no particular pharmacological treatments for dependence on amphetamine or amphetamine-like drugs such as methamphetamine. Antidepressant medications are helpful in combating the depressive symptoms frequently seen in methamphetamine users who recently have become abstinent.

Acute methamphetamine intoxication can often be handled by observation in a safe, quiet environment. In cases of extreme excitement or panic, treatment with antianxiety agents such as benzodiazepines has been helpful, and in cases of methamphetamine-induced psychoses, short-term use of neuroleptics has proven successful.