Ritalin is the brand name for the prescription stimulant methylphenidate, which is primarily used to treat the symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). For more than 50 years, Ritalin was the most commonly prescribed drug for the treatment of ADHD.
While it’s still legal, it’s largely been overshadowed by Vyvanse and Adderall. In particular, Adderall has become more widely prescribed and more commonly misused and abused.
As the risks involved in Adderall abuse and addiction have become more widely known, Ritalin was viewed as being “safer.” But while Ritalin may not be an amphetamine, it’s still addictive, dangerous, and easy to overdose on.
While Ritalin and Adderall both stimulate the central nervous system (CNS) by boosting levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, Ritalin isn’t an amphetamine. Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter that speeds up brain activity, so it makes users more focused and alert. Meanwhile, dopamine provides a feeling of euphoria that motivates the brain to stay on task and complete the desired activity.
People with ADHD may have faulty receptors or lower levels of these neurotransmitters, so they take stimulants such as Adderall or Ritalin to boost them.
Adderall binds to the brain’s dopamine and norepinephrine receptors, and it floods the brain and CNS with them. However, Ritalin doesn’t create new neurotransmitters. Instead, it blocks the current ones from being reabsorbed.
Usually, the brain releases a certain amount of dopamine or norepinephrine until they’re no longer needed. Afterward, they’re reabsorbed for later use. Ritalin blocks dopamine and norepinephrine from being reabsorbed, which allows the levels of both chemicals to build up and remain in the brain longer.
Therefore, people with ADHD can remain focused, but people with normal dopamine and norepinephrine levels have intense feelings of euphoria and energy. Because Ritalin is such a fast-acting drug, it is very similar to cocaine when crushed and snorted.
Recognizing the signs of substance abuse and addiction can be more difficult than you might think. Specifically, Ritalin may cause you to dismiss abnormal behaviors as they appear until they’ve developed into a full-blown addiction. So it’s important to know the common side effects of Ritalin abuse, as they can point toward an escalating problem.
These side effects include:
The key characteristic that separates Ritalin addiction from abuse and dependence is the user’s inability to control their usage. At this point, they start to compulsively seek out Ritalin, despite the negative consequences.
Eventually, Ritalin will push out almost everything else in their life, so it becomes the driving force behind their actions and decisions. Other behavioral signs consistent with Ritalin addiction include:
Generally, the treatment process starts with medical detox. To prevent the damage these substances may be causing the body, all related toxins are flushed from the user’s system.
The symptoms of Ritalin withdrawal are much milder than other stimulants, but they’re still uncomfortable. Therefore, most people may be able to detox from Ritalin on an outpatient basis.
However, Ritalin detox shouldn’t be attempted without some level of medical supervision, as users can experience extreme mood swings, depression, and suicidal thoughts. A professional detox center can provide the necessary psychological and medical support that will prevent self-harm and relapsing.
After detox, it’s critical that the next phase be ongoing treatment in an addiction treatment program. Depending on various factors, users may opt for inpatient or outpatient treatment. The essential difference is that inpatient treatment involves living onsite at a treatment center, while an outpatient program involves clients commuting to the facility for treatment sessions.
During the course of a treatment program, clients will pinpoint the roots of their addiction, which will help them gain the tools and skills necessary to more effectively manage their addictive behaviors and avoid relapsing.
Here are some common elements that may be included in a treatment plan:
As a prescription stimulant, Ritalin is comparatively safer than other amphetamines, but there are many serious dangers and health risks. Because it’s so often perceived as a “safe” stimulant to misuse, it’s frequently taken with alcohol, which greatly increases the risk of alcohol poisoning.
Regular, heavy Ritalin abuse also places a significant amount of strain on the heart, which can cause arrhythmia, high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes.
It’s possible to fatally overdose on Ritalin. The common signs of a Ritalin overdose include:
If someone is experiencing a Ritalin overdose, it’s vital that they receive emergency medical attention as soon as possible.
Morris, S. Y. (2016, July). Adderall vs. Ritalin: What's the Difference? from https://www.healthline.com/health/adhd/adderall-vs-ritalin
Morton, W. A., & Stockton, G. G. (2000, October). Methylphenidate Abuse and Psychiatric Side Effects. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC181133/
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, January). What Is the Scope of Prescription Drug Misuse? from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/misuse-prescription-drugs/what-scope-prescription-drug-misuse
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2017, September). Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. from https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUH-FFR1-2016/NSDUH-FFR1-2016.pdf