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Crystal Meth Detox Guide: Symptoms, Timeline, and Effects

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Crystal meth is an extremely potent substance that has the power to be addictive even upon the first use. When a user has become addicted to methamphetamine, it can be extremely difficult for him to stop due to cravings, anxiety, and other withdrawal symptoms.

Fortunately, there are numerous structured detox programs for those looking to begin a new life in recovery from crystal meth.

Methamphetamine Dependence and Withdrawal

Crystal meth (“ice,” “crank,” “speed,” “Tina,”) is a form of methamphetamine, a powerful psychostimulant drug with similarities to cocaine and amphetamine.

Pure methamphetamine is a white, odorless, crystalline powder and is also sold in pill or “rock” form. The drug is swallowed, smoked, injected, or snorted. Like other psychostimulants, meth boosts the levels of dopamine in the brain, resulting in increased energy, wakefulness, and pleasure.

Dependence and Patterns of Use

Methamphetamine has a very high potential to cause addiction due to its effects on the motivation and reward centers of the brain. Dopamine levels in these circuits are naturally boosted by actions important for survival, including eating, having sex, and bonding with family and friends. By artificially increasing dopamine in these brain areas, methamphetamine use gives users unnaturally intense feelings of pleasure and they are strongly motivated to repeat that action again and again.

Although crystal meth abuse can produce intense feelings of pleasure and energy, there are also many unfavorable immediate effects that can lead to negative consequences. Some examples of common side effects of crystal meth abuse include:7,8

  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Rapid heart rate and increased blood pressure.
  • Chest pain and irregular heartbeat.
  • Slowed breathing.
  • Weight loss.
  • Psychomotor agitation (repetitive, purposeless movements).
  • Psychomotor retardation (slowed movements or thought).
  • Impairment of voluntary movements.
  • Uncontrollable muscle contractions.
  • Muscular weakness.
  • Dilated pupils.
  • Blunted emotions.
  • Tension or anger.
  • Anxiety.
  • Impaired judgment.
  • Changes in sociability.
  • Confusion.
  • Seizures.
  • Coma.

Crystal meth can be dangerous and life-threatening anytime that you use it, due to potential seizures, coma, or accidents or assaults resulting from erratic or vigilant behaviors. There is no safe way to use crystal meth and it can have dire consequences. Methamphetamine abusers soon feel that taking the drug is more important than eating or sleeping, and they are often unable to stop even if there are negative consequences, such as losing their job or getting arrested. This state, in which drug use has taken over the brain’s natural system of reward and motivation, is commonly known as addiction.

The Pattern of Crashing and Binging

Methamphetamine use often depletes the brain’s reserves of dopamine, which means that the intense high is followed by a “crash” and feelings of apathy, depression, and hopelessness. Many users attempt to avoid these symptoms by “binging” or using the drug repeatedly to maintain the high for hours or days. This binge pattern of use puts users at greater danger of developing an addiction to methamphetamine since the brain is exposed to the drug at high concentrations for extended periods of time.

Tweaking

Some methamphetamine abusers may binge for 3-15 days without sleep, a pattern known as “tweaking”. Users in this state (“tweakers”) often become extremely paranoid, aggressive, and irritable. Tweakers are no longer able to achieve the desired high by taking more methamphetamine, and this pushes them into a dangerous state where the effects of sleep deprivation and overwhelming feelings of frustration set in, making them mentally unstable and unpredictable.

Risks of Long-term Abuse

Continued crystal meth use over an extended period of time can be detrimental to a user’s mental and physical health and greatly impair functioning in many areas of life. Some risks associated with chronic crystal meth abuse include:7,8

  • Intravenous effects, such as HIV and hepatitis B and C.
  • Exacerbation of the progression of those who already have HIV/AIDs.
  • Respiratory problems, such as bronchitis, coughing, and pneumonitis.
  • Lung infections.
  • Increased risk of getting STD due to impulsive and risky behaviors while under the influence.
  • Severe weight loss and malnutrition.
  • Heart attack.
  • Stroke.
  • Meth mouth, or tooth decay, gum disease, and mouth sores.
  • Skin sores due to scratching.
  • Disturbed sleep patterns.
  • An increase in violent behaviors.
  • Paranoia.
  • Profound confusion.
  • Marked anxiety.
  • Hallucinations.
  • Reduced coordination.
  • Impaired verbal learning.
  • Increased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.

The longer you use crystal meth the higher your risk of experiencing one or several of these long-term effects of crystal meth use. Additionally, the longer you continue to use the stimulant, the more likely it is that you will develop an addiction, a chronic condition in which a person uses the substance regardless of the negative impact on his or her life.

Effects and Symptoms of Crystal Meth Withdrawal

Man sitting next to wall holding his head down Using methamphetamine causes many negative physical and mental symptoms once the effects of the drug wear off, sometimes called a crash. If an individual has abused methamphetamine long enough to become dependent on the drug, they will experience intensely unpleasant and sometimes dangerous withdrawal symptoms once they stop using the drug. These symptoms include:7

  • Increased appetite.
  • Excessive fatigue.
  • Anxiety.
  • Craving.
  • Depression.
  • Psychosis.

Some of these symptoms are a reaction to the typically unhealthy lifestyle of a person addicted to methamphetamine. Abusers will often neglect eating and sleeping while under the influence of this drug because of the energizing effects of methamphetamine and its abnormal influence on motivation pathways in the brain. Therefore, symptoms such as increased appetite and fatigue are normal reactions by the body to return to a healthy state, and these typically subside within 1 to 2 weeks of continuous abstinence.

Anxiety is also a normal, temporary reaction many drug abusers have during withdrawal. This is because a person who is addicted to methamphetamine has come to rely on it as a crutch to deal with the stresses of normal life, and it may be scary for them to imagine life without it. It is normal for individuals who are dependent on any drug to be anxious and fearful of stopping, even if drugs are actually causing them harm. Fortunately, this anxiety will also fade with time.

After someone stops taking meth, they often experience the feeling that nothing in life is pleasurable, a reaction known as anhedonia. This phenomenon may sometimes be a preamble to a developing depression. Abusers in withdrawal usually also feel powerful cravings for the drug that can be nearly impossible to resist by willpower alone.

Cravings and depression are typically the most challenging symptoms of methamphetamine withdrawal. Because meth has such powerful and disruptive effects on the brain’s reward and motivation centers, these symptoms are more long-lasting than other aspects of withdrawal and can continue for more than 2 weeks after the last use.4 This is because it takes time for these brain pathways to heal and return to normal functioning.

The longer and more intensely a person has abused methamphetamine, the more severe their withdrawal symptoms are likely to be. Consider that:

  • Studies in rats and monkeys indicate that methamphetamine permanently damages brain cells that make dopamine and serotonin, another neurotransmitter involved in mood and pleasure.
  • Methamphetamine causes changes in the physical structure of users’ brains in regions involved with emotions and memories.

It is likely that the longer this damage continues, the longer it will take for the brain to heal after a person stops taking meth.

Psychosis is a less-common reaction to methamphetamine abuse. A person experiencing drug-induced psychosis has similar symptoms as someone with schizophrenia, including:

  • Hallucinations.
  • Disordered thinking.
  • Social withdrawal.

Though usually temporary, psychosis may persist for years after drug abuse is stopped.

Crystal Meth Detox Timeline and Protocol

The journey from methamphetamine dependence to recovery can take several months, and maintaining a healthy, drug-free lifestyle is a lifelong process. This section briefly describes the steps along this journey and what to expect.

The initial phase of recovery from methamphetamine addiction is the crash that follows the high of drug use. Individuals who are crashing often feel depressed, fatigued, and irritable. These symptoms will pass in hours or days if a person is not yet dependent on the drug. If a person has become addicted, or if the last use was a heavy binge, they may also experience paranoia and psychosis requiring the temporary use of sedatives or antipsychotic medications.

After the crash, a person addicted to methamphetamine will experience withdrawal, which was discussed above. Fatigue, anxiety, and eating abnormalities will usually subside within days or weeks. Detoxification (detox) center clinicians can prescribe sedatives and other medications to ease some of the more severe or troublesome symptoms.

Depression and craving may last several weeks or months after withdrawal from methamphetamine and can be treated with antidepressants.4 Should withdrawal psychosis emerge, it may be managed with antipsychotics.

There are currently no medications approved for use in the treatment of people with methamphetamine dependence or addiction, so the primary therapies employed are behavioral. These treatments can last between 4 weeks and a year, depending on the program chosen. Some behavioral therapies that have been shown to be effective in methamphetamine addiction include:

  • The Matrix Model: A holistic approach that combines various strategies including behavioral therapy, counseling, drug testing, 12-step support, and family involvement.
  • Contingency Management: A strategy that rewards engagement in recovery and maintenance of abstinence with tangible rewards.
  • Motivational Incentives for Enhancing Drug Abuse Recovery (MIEDAR): Another incentive-based therapy that has been shown to be effective in abusers of methamphetamine in clinical trials.

How Does Supervised Detox Help?

Detoxing from chronic methamphetamine abuse is an uncomfortable process that can have certain dangerous complications. Many people experience paranoid and irrational thoughts and may present a danger to themselves or others. Furthermore, depression during detox can lead to suicidal thoughts. Additionally, cravings for methamphetamine during detox are so powerful that many abusers will eventually give in and return to drug use despite their sincere desire to stop.

Medical professionals at detox facilities are familiar with the challenges of withdrawing from methamphetamine. They provide a supportive environment that allows for:

  • Administration of medication to patients, if necessary, to make them more comfortable.
  • Supervision to prevent patients from harming themselves or others.
  • Temporary separation of the recovering person from their normal environment and the inherent temptations and opportunities to use.

Finally, detox facilities can provide crucial support for those who are suffering from mental health issues caused by their methamphetamine use. Oftentimes, depression and psychosis are serious and ongoing consequences of abusing this drug, requiring long-term management through counseling and medication. Staff at detox centers can assist their clients by connecting them with programs and resources available to address these mental health challenges.

Finding a Treatment Program


Because of the high rate at which methamphetamine abusers return to drug use after detox, it is advisable for anyone undergoing withdrawal from methamphetamine to enter a drug treatment program immediately after completing the detox process. There are several types of drug treatment programs available depending on your specific needs.

Inpatient treatment facilities offer round-the-clock support in a controlled environment for about 4 to 12 weeks. Oftentimes, inpatient programs are affiliated with a detox center, so clients can enter treatment seamlessly after withdrawing from methamphetamines. These intensive programs can help recovering individuals address their addiction in a safe place, separated from people and places that are associated with their drug use and with other people going through the same process.

For those who want or need extended support, sober living facilities offer a supportive environment for those transitioning out of treatment into a life in recovery.

Outpatient treatment facilities run only during the day and allow patients to return home in the evening. This type of program can be beneficial to individuals with work or home obligations and a solid network of support at home. For people who live alone or with other drug abusers, the outpatient option may not be the best.

If you or a loved one is struggling with methamphetamine addiction, you do not have to face it alone. There is help, no matter what your situation.

Sources

  1. Downs, M. (n.d.) Meth 101.
  2. Center for Substance Abuse Research. (2013). Methamphetamine.
  3. McGregor, C., Srisurapanont, M., Jittiwutikarn, J., Laobhripatr, S., Wongtan, T., & White, J. M. (2005). The nature, time course and severity of methamphetamine withdrawal. Addiction, 100(9), 1320-1329.
  4. Zorick, T., Nestor, L., Miotto, K., Sugar, C., Hellemann, G., Scanlon, G., . . . London, E. D. (2010). Withdrawal symptoms in abstinent methamphetamine-dependent subjects. Addiction, 105(10), 1809-1818.
  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Methamphetamine.
  6. Ling, W., Mooney, L., & Haglund, M. (2014). Treating Methamphetamine Abuse Disorder: As Prevalence of Methamphetamine Abuse Mushrooms, Practitioners Face the Challenge of Treating the Disorder, Its Withdrawal Symptoms, and Stimulant-Induced Psychosis. Current Psychiatry, 13(9), 37.
  7. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). Methamphetamine: What is methamphetamine?
  8. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

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