Crystal meth is one of the commonly used street names for methamphetamine, a powerfully addictive stimulant drug that is frequently abused by snorting, smoking, or injecting it. Other names for methamphetamine include ice, meth, and chalk. When used, it creates a powerful feeling of euphoria, often known as a rush. It is incredibly easy to become addicted to crystal meth too—according to the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), approximately 600,000 people in the United States use methamphetamine in any given month.1,2
Typical Signs and Symptoms
Crystal meth is addictive primarily because of its influence on dopamine in key areas of the brain, causing activity levels to spike dramatically when you use the drug. When the brain receives such a large hit of dopamine (a neurotransmitter involved in feelings of pleasure and reward), you experience that intense rush of euphoria associated with the drug. As with many pleasurable sensations, it’s something you’d like to experience again and again, so you keep using more crystal meth to get that gratification. This can be especially dangerous for adolescent and teen users.
But over time, crystal meth becomes less effective in producing the same level of euphoria since your brain builds up a tolerance to the drug, meaning it gets used to its presence, so it doesn’t register it as so novel and exciting as before. As a result, you need higher doses of the drug to achieve the euphoria you’ve come to expect from crystal meth.1 The reinforcing properties of methamphetamine coupled with its propensity to build tolerance prime the user for rapid addiction development.
Once addiction sets in, you will likely continue to use the drug despite any negative consequences of doing so, including physical, legal, and social ramifications. Addiction to crystal meth is diagnosed as a stimulant use disorder, the criteria for which are defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). A mental health or medical clinician will evaluate if you meet 2 or more of these criteria over the last year:3
- Spending the majority of your time either using stimulants or thinking about them.
- Trying repeatedly to cut back or stop using, but not being able to do so.
- Using more stimulant drugs than you intended.
- Craving the drug.
- Continuing to use stimulants despite your use of the drug producing legal, physical, or social consequences.
- Using stimulants in situations where it is unsafe to do so, such as when driving or operating machinery.
- Developing tolerance to stimulants and needing more and more of the drug to feel the effects.
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you stop using the stimulant.
Over time, the harmful physical and emotional effects of crystal meth will build. If you use crystal meth long-term, you may experience:1
- Mental confusion.
- Skin lesions.
Other long-term effects of crystal meth include damage to your motor skills and verbal learning ability. In fact, brain scans reveal characteristic structural changes to the brains of crystal meth addicts. The good news is, with treatment and a year of abstinence, some of the damage to the brain may be reversible.1
Detoxing from Crystal Meth
Compared with the potentially dangerous detox associated substances such as alcohol and sedatives, crystal meth detox is a relatively straightforward process and rarely results in medical complications or life-threatening situations. Instead, it’s the emotional aspects of detox and withdrawal that prove the most challenging. Severe depression presents as the most common complication of crystal meth withdrawal, and it can be treated with antidepressants under medical supervision.4
Other common symptoms of withdrawal from crystal meth include:1
- Poor concentration.
- Increased appetite.
Unlike other drugs, for which there are several medications used to help manage detox and withdrawal (such as heroin), there are no medications specifically approved for use during crystal meth detox, nor any for ongoing treatment of stimulant dependence. However, unlike withdrawal from opioids—where you may experience severe nausea, vomiting, body aches, and tremors—the physical withdrawal symptoms for crystal meth are relatively mild. Insomnia is the most prevalent physical symptom, which can be easily managed with relaxation techniques or sleep medication, if warranted. And the excessive hunger that results in detox can be eased by eating large portions of nourishing food.
Despite the lack of severe physical symptoms or complications related to crystal meth withdrawal, quitting crystal meth can be difficult, especially without help. The emotional aspects of withdrawal can prove too challenging for most people to cope with on their own without significant emotional support and supervision. Because of this, many types of stimulant abuse, including crystal meth, have a high relapse rate.
Another obstacle to quitting is that many crystal meth users report a binge-and-crash cycle of use. The euphoria from using the drug is followed by depressed feelings once the high passes, so you take more crystal meth to feel good again. However, during detox, when you cannot take more drugs to avoid the crash, you may have difficulty coping with the loss of those pleasurable feelings and feel desperate to use again.4 This is why finding the right treatment center—one experienced in anticipating and managing any difficult withdrawal obstacles—is so crucial to your recovery.
Available Rehab Options
After making the decision to enter a recovery program, a medical or mental health clinician trained in addiction medicine will perform a comprehensive assessment to determine the best course of treatment for you, based on your specific needs.
For the reasons mentioned earlier related to issues that arise during the initial detox period—intense cravings, severe depression—it may be best to be in a setting where you can be closely supported and monitored for your comfort and safety. Short-term detox programs are typically inpatient and last for 3 to 7 days, until your body rids itself of the crystal meth. Doctors and nurses typically supervise your withdrawal symptoms and adjust your treatment to help keep you as comfortable as possible. From here, most people transition to a longer-term inpatient program.
Inpatient treatment programs provide around-the-clock support and supervision from both medical and mental health professionals. Whether hospital-based or other residential setting, inpatient programs provide you a safe haven in which you are removed from crystal meth and your using environment and can safely begin to heal from your addiction. A typical stay in a residential treatment program lasts between 30 and 90 days and involves regular therapy groups, individual and family counseling sessions, and educational classes all with the purpose of helping you understand your addiction and learn and practice new tools and skills that will help you stay sober once you return home.5
Inpatient treatment is also an excellent option when you have a co-occurring addiction, such as to alcohol or opioids, since these conditions tend to create additional complications, which your treatment providers can help you navigate.
While some enroll in relatively intensive outpatient programs as their primary means of crystal meth rehabilitation, others use outpatient treatment as a step-down option once initial residential treatment has ended. In either instance, you return to live at home, but come to the treatment facility 3 to 5 times a week on-average to attend therapy groups and counseling sessions and continue to strengthen the healthy living skills you’ve learned.4
Drug treatment programs provide various approaches to counseling, but the most common is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which teaches you how your feelings are connected to your thoughts and your actions, and gives you concrete steps to take to reshape negative thoughts and create more positive actions.
You will also likely attend peer groups, such as 12-step programs. During this time you can build important relationships with others who have gone through similar experiences with crystal meth addiction and are living in sobriety. Once you’ve completed formal treatment and transition into the long-term aftercare phase, you can continue to attend your 12-step or peer support group indefinitely, giving you the continuity and support of your recovery community—something that has been found to be incredibly effective.5
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- National Institute on Drug Abuse (2014). Methamphetamine.
- Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (2013). Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5. Washington, D.C: American Psychiatric Publishing.
- Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2006). Detoxification and Substance Abuse Treatment. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 45.) 4 Physical Detoxification Services for Withdrawal from Specific Substances.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (2012). Principles of drug addiction treatment: A research-based guide.