Long-term Effects of Crystal Meth
Crystal meth is an illegal, crystal or rock-like form of methamphetamine. It is a commonly abused stimulant drug that causes intense euphoria and increased energy.2 In spite of these desirable effects, crystal meth is extremely addictive and can be destructive to your health in a variety of ways. Long-term use causes significant changes in the brain—changes that make it extremely tough to quit using once you’re addicted.
Regular users who try to quit may encounter unpleasant withdrawal symptoms that often trigger relapse. Many people find themselves stuck in this cycle of using, quitting, and relapsing, unable to break the cycle and remain abstinent. Fortunately, methamphetamine addiction is treatable, and a range of recovery options are available to those seeking help.
What is Meth and How is it Used?
In the early 20th century, methamphetamine was synthesized from a related drug, amphetamine, and was originally used in bronchial inhalers and nasal decongestants. Today, legally manufactured methamphetamine (as opposed to illicit crystal meth) is a Schedule II controlled substance, meaning that it has some medical purposes but also has a high risk of abuse and dependence. In the past it has been prescribed to treat depression, obesity, and narcolepsy. Today, only one methamphetamine product – Desoxyn – is available and it is rarely prescribed for its indicated uses: treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obesity.2,3
While the drug can be legally obtained through a prescription, people also use it recreationally. Most people who abuse the stimulant do so with methamphetamine obtained on the street, the supply of which is commonly manufactured in Mexico and small labs throughout the U.S.2 These labs have been known to manufacture methamphetamine by using diverted pseudoephedrine medications. This widespread repurposing of a previously easy to obtain, over-the-counter decongestant product led to the creation of the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005, which tightened regulations surrounding the distribution of pseudoephedrine through retailers.2
Crystal meth is often referred to as “ice” or “glass,” and is most commonly smoked.2,9 Smoking crystal meth, as opposed to taking it orally, leads to a rapid onset of effects, including an intense, near-immediate rush of euphoria. This powerful high only lasts for a few minutes, which is why it is commonly abused in a “binge and crash” pattern in which the user smokes crystal meth repeatedly in attempts to maintain the high and avoid the come-down. In some cases, this pattern of meth abuse could last for several days, in which the person goes without sleep or food.9 People who abuse methamphetamine, regardless of the form, often abuse other substances, such as alcohol, marijuana, opioids, cocaine, and amphetamines.5
Why Do People Abuse it?
People abuse crystal meth because of its desirable and reinforcing effects, such as:2,10
- Euphoria and pleasure.
- Increased sociability.
- Increased energy and physical activity.
- Decreased fatigue.
- Reduced appetite.
The rush of euphoria resulting from crystal meth abuse is caused by the release of high levels of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with motivation, reward, motor function, among other processes.10 Natural rewards, such as those derived from sex, eating, and other activities that promote survival, induce a release of dopamine in the brain. This mechanism serves as reinforcement for a person to continue engaging in these activities in the future.
When a person abuses crystal meth, dopamine is released in abnormally large quantities, thus rewarding the user for engaging in this behavior. The brain remembers and stores this information to promote future crystal meth abuse. This cycle is what promotes continued crystal meth abuse, regardless of the risks and consequences associated with use.10
What Are the Effects of Chronic Use?
There are many consequences and risks associated with long-term crystal meth abuse. These include:3,11
These effects can be extremely debilitating to your physical and mental health, and may put others in danger as well. Further, when used repeatedly, as crystal meth often is, tolerance may develop to the drug’s desired effects. As tolerance grows, a person will require higher or more frequent doses of the drug in order to experience the euphoric high. Long-term meth users may find it challenging to experience pleasure from any source other than crystal meth, further fueling the cycle of drug abuse.11
Crystal meth addiction is characterized by continued meth abuse regardless of the harmful effects. It is a chronic, progressive condition, which means that it tends to worsen over time. Long-term, repeated crystal meth use may alter certain brain functions, which can make it difficult to quit.11
Addiction becomes such a disruptive and powerful force that it causes significant impairment and distress in a user’s life. There are many signs and symptoms that may indicate a crystal meth addiction, such as:7
- Taking meth in larger or more frequent doses than originally intended.
- Failing to stop or reduce meth use in spite of wanting to.
- Experiencing strong cravings for meth.
- Failing to fulfill tasks at school, home, or work because of meth use.
- Spending a significant amount of time obtaining and using the drug.
- Continuing to use crystal meth when its use is damaging relationships.
- Using meth in spite of the known risks the drug poses to physical and mental health.
- Using methamphetamine in hazardous situations, such as while driving.
- Forgoing important recreational, social, or occupational activities in favor of meth use.
Another major sign of addiction is physiological dependence, which develops as a result of long-term crystal meth abuse. The body adapts to the presence of the stimulant and requires it to functional optimally. Without crystal meth, the dependent person experiences unpleasant and disturbing withdrawal symptoms.11 These withdrawal symptoms can make it difficult to quit without the help of an addiction professional.
Crystal Meth Withdrawal Symptoms & Treatment
One of the greatest challenges crystal meth users face when attempting to quit is the emergence of unwanted withdrawal symptoms. These withdrawal symptoms can be extremely uncomfortable for a user, which could lead to relapse or the use of other psychoactive drugs.
Crystal meth withdrawal symptoms are rarely fatal, but this is not to say they are without risk. Profound depression may lead to suicidal thoughts or behaviors. People who have a history of depression or are currently experiencing depression may benefit from the support of professional methamphetamine detox and treatment assistance to ensure their safety.
The crucial first step in overcoming meth addiction is detoxification, a process during which the body clears itself of all toxins while withdrawal symptoms and other medical issues are managed. The goal of professional meth detox is to achieve medical stabilization in a drug-free state.
After the detoxification process is complete, a patient should strongly consider entering a formal treatment program to address the underlying problems driving crystal meth abuse. This is achieved through a comprehensive treatment approach, often consisting of individual therapy, group counseling, peer-to-peer support, and medication (if applicable). The main goal is to provide the person with healthy coping skills they can use when faced with triggers so that they avoid relapse and maintain sobriety.
Regardless of your situation, it’s never too late to make a positive change in your life. If you’d like to learn more about your detox and addiction treatment options, contact your physician for referrals. You can also search through our detox directory for a program that best suits your needs.
- Foundation for a Drug-Free World. (2018). The Truth About Crystal Meth.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2013). Methamphetamine
- Drug Enforcement Administration. (2013). Methamphetamine.
- Drug Enforcement Administration. (N.D.). Drug Scheduling.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014). The Dawn Report: Emergency Department Visits Involving Methamphetamine: 2007-2011.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014). Results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables.
- The American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Drugs, Brains and Behavior: The Science of Addiction: Treatment and Recovery.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2013). How is methamphetamine abused?
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2013). What are the immediate (short-term) effects of methamphetamine abuse?
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2013). What are the long-term effects of methamphetamine abuse?