Ritalin is a nervous system stimulant that is primarily prescribed for Attention-Deficit Disorder (ADHD). Also known as a “study drug,” Ritalin is often consumed by college students to improve focus and concentration and enhance their academic performance. While Ritalin is used by millions of people across the globe, the U.S. produces and consumes approximately 85% of the world’s supply.

Like other prescription stimulants such as Adderall, Ritalin is addictive because it targets the pleasure system in the brain. While Ritalin is less harmful than illicit stimulants like cocaine, the drug still causes addiction due to its uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. Ritalin is also psychologically addicting, especially in cases where individuals use the drug for improved concentration, energy, and focus.

However, there is hope for those who become addicted to Ritalin. With multiple treatment options available, individuals can restore their health and lead new lives free from addiction.

Before going into the treatment methods that are available for Ritalin addiction, this article will provide an outline of what Ritalin is and what the long-term effects are.

What Is Ritalin?

In its generic form, Ritalin is called methylphenidate, and it is a central nervous stimulant that is used to treat Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and sleep disorders like narcolepsy. It is also used for cognitive enhancement, academic performance, appetite suppression, and recreationally as an aphrodisiac and euphoriant. Ritalin has also been prescribed for treatment-resistant cases of bipolar disorder and major depression.

Like most stimulants, Ritalin increases two key neurotransmitters — dopamine and norepinephrine. Dopamine is known as the “pleasure chemical,” the release of which creates a reward system in the brain. Norepinephrine, on the other hand, influences how the brain responds to events in terms of speed and attention rates. Ritalin works by blocking dopamine and norepinephrine receptors, making these chemicals more readily available in the brain.

The most common way to ingest Ritalin is to take it in pill form; however, it can also be chewed, snorted, or diluted in water and injected.

Other names for Ritalin include:

  • Diet Coke
  • Kiddie Cocaine
  • Kiddie Coke
  • Poor man’s cocaine
  • R-ball
  • Rids
  • Skittles
  • Smarties
  • Vitamin R

Differences Between Ritalin and Adderall

Comparisons are often made between Ritalin and Adderall, as both are prescribed for ADHD and they produce similar effects in the body. However, one of the key differences is in their ingredients: Adderall is composed of amphetamine salts, whereas Ritalin is made from methylphenidate hydrochloride.

While both drugs are nervous system stimulants, Adderall has more potential for adverse side effects due to its amphetamine content. Ritalin is also more effective in children and adolescents with ADHD, whereas Adderall is better suited to adults. Ritalin also works sooner and reaches peak performance more quickly than Adderall.

Is Ritalin Addictive?

Ritalin is a Schedule II Controlled Substance in the U.S. Despite its 70% efficacy rate for ADHD treatment, this drug is highly addictive, especially when it is used recreationally. Because Ritalin affects dopamine levels, high doses of this drug can lead to a euphoric high.

Ritalin also becomes psychologically addictive when it is used for enhancement purposes, as the individual depends on the drug to help them focus or concentrate. Long-term use can also lead to addiction due to the withdrawal effects.

It’s worth noting that there is a difference between dependence and addiction when it comes to this drug. Physical dependence on Ritalin can occur when the body is reliant on the chemical interactions caused by the drug. In this case, medical support may be required to help wean the individual off the drug. However, dependence differs from addiction, as the individual isn’t mentally attached or obsessed with taking the drug.

Ritalin addiction, on the other hand, occurs when individuals are largely unable to function without the drug. They often develop a physical and psychological addiction that leads them to go to extreme lengths to obtain a Ritalin prescription. Individuals who are addicted will also usually take more than the prescribed amount or take it for longer than its intended use.

Ritalin Abuse Statistics

In 2013, it was reported that 2.4 million doses of Ritalin were taken worldwide. However, that pales in comparison to the 17 million prescriptions that were written for Ritalin in the U.S. in 2018 alone. This statistic makes Ritalin the 45th most prescribed medication in the country for that year.

Other statistics include:

  • In 2016, nearly 2 million Americans aged 12 and above reported having abused prescription stimulants like Ritalin.
  • Over 16% of college students are reported to have taken methylphenidates like Ritalin for recreational purposes.
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control, 11% of children in the U.S. were diagnosed with ADHD in 2011.
  • A survey conducted by Recovery Brands revealed that 63% of young adults aged 18 to 28 acquire prescription stimulants like Ritalin through their friends.

The History of Ritalin

Methylphenidate was first synthesized in 1944 by a Swiss chemist named Leandro Panizzon, who named the drug “Ritalin” after his wife, Margarita (Rita, for short). The drug was approved for medical use in the U.S. in 1955 and sold by the Swiss company, CIBA (now Novartis).

Originally used as a treatment for narcolepsy, depression, and medically-induced coma, methylphenidate was later used for treating memory deficits. By the 1960s, the drug showed potential for ADHD treatment after American psychiatrist Charles Bradley conducted studies on the effectiveness of stimulants on children with attention and focus problems.

In the 1990s, the production of Ritalin greatly increased. This was partially due to increased awareness and diagnoses of ADHD, and because more children seemed to be developing the condition.

How Ritalin Is Taken

Ritalin is prescribed in immediate-release (IR) and extended-release (XR) formulations. These are available as 5 mg, 10mg, or 20 mg tablets and are usually taken orally (although the pills are sometimes crushed and snorted when used recreationally). Methylphenidate skin patches are also available.

Ritalin pills can be identified by the Ciba manufacturer imprint. They are also color-coded, depending on their strength:

  • 5mg: yellow
  • 10 mg: green
  • 20 mg: white and yellow

When taken orally, Ritalin starts working within 30 minutes to an hour. Depending on the dose, the effects of Ritalin can last for 3 to 4 hours. The extended-release tabs (Ritalin XR) can last up to 12 hours.

Adults

An average dose for adults is 20 to 30 mg daily. Tablets are taken in divided doses 2 or 3 times daily, with a maximum dosage of 60 mg in total. Extended-release dosages are taken less frequently, as their duration is 8 hours or more.

Children

Average doses for children start at 5 mg twice daily and are then increased gradually in increments of 5 to 10 mg weekly. Daily dosages of 60mg are not recommended.

Who Abuses Ritalin?

While Ritalin is used by people of all ages, some population groups have a higher prevalence of abusing the drug. These include:

College Students

As mentioned, college students make up a large portion of the population who use Ritalin. The drug helps students stay awake and concentrate for long periods, making it a desirable option during periods of high academic demands. Working professionals are also known to use the drug for similar performance reasons.

Athletes

Athletes are known to use Ritalin to increase energy and enhance their performance both in practice and during competitions. Researchers in Germany, for example, found that 15% of triathletes admitted to using prescriptions that increase attention.

People With Co-Occurring Conditions

Due to Ritalin’s appetite-suppressing qualities, individuals with conditions such as eating disorders are known to abuse the drug to help them lose weight.

The Effects of Ritalin

Ritalin releases brain chemicals that are responsible for pleasure and focus. If the drug is taken in high doses, it can create an intense high. Some of the short-term effects include:

  • Increased energy
  • Improved focus
  • Excitability
  • Increased sociability
  • Feelings of euphoria
  • Self-confidence
  • Decreased appetite

Side Effects

Ritalin can also cause a range of uncomfortable side effects, which will vary according to the individual. They include:

  • Suppressed appetite
  • Anxiety
  • Chest pain
  • Changes in blood pressure
  • Confusion
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures
  • Headache
  • Agitation
  • Insomnia
  • Paranoia
  • Fatigue
  • Altered heart rate
  • Respiratory depression
  • Nervousness
  • Hypersensitivity
  • Panic Attacks

Common Ritalin Combinations

Like most drugs, Ritalin is used recreationally with other substances to enhance its effects and achieve a greater high. Some of the most frequent Ritalin combinations include:

Alcohol

Alcohol is commonly used with Ritalin. While this is sometimes taken to alter the high, it can also be used to help the individual come down from the stimulating effects of the drug (e.g., at the end of a study session). However, like other stimulants, Ritalin can mask the effects of alcohol, causing someone to drink more than they normally would. Conversely, alcohol can mask the stimulating effects of Ritalin, potentially leading to an overdose.

Another danger of mixing alcohol and Ritalin is the potential strain it puts on the heart. Both drugs are known to increase heart rate and blood pressure, so the combination places stress on the entire cardiovascular system.

Other Stimulants

Another common combination is Ritalin and other stimulants like ecstasy or cocaine. As these drugs do similar things in the body, they can amplify the side effects and lead to health complications. This includes the risk of heart attack, stroke, impaired judgment, high blood pressure, and increased paranoia. It can also cause “crashes” once the drugs wear off as individuals experience depressed moods, anxiety, and sleep issues.

Xanax

Another common Ritalin combination is Xanax. However, like alcohol, these two drugs can create opposing effects in the body. As Ritalin is a stimulant and Xanax is a depressant, they cancel each other out, which can lead to fatal overdoses when an individual mistakenly thinks they are soberer than they are.

Another danger of mixing these drugs is the effect they each have on the respiratory system. Xanax, for example, slows down breathing, while Ritalin can demand increased oxygen. This can lead to respiratory complications as the individual struggles to meet their oxygen needs.

Signs & Symptoms of Ritalin Addiction

Ritalin can be both physically and psychologically addicting, especially if the drug is used for sustained periods. The signs and symptoms of Ritalin addiction can vary from person to person, depending on how much they take and long they’ve used it. However, there are physical, psychological, behavioral, and social signs to watch out for.

Physical Signs of Addiction

Individuals who regularly take Ritalin at high doses (or frequently and for long periods) can exhibit physical signs of addiction such as:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Irritability
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Exhaustion
  • Excessive weight loss
  • Dehydration
  • Mania
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia

Psychological Signs

Individuals who regularly abuse Ritalin will also exhibit psychological signs of addiction and emotional changes the longer they take the drug. These include:

  • Social withdrawal
  • Financial troubles
  • Aggression
  • Secretive behavior
  • Suspiciousness
  • Incomplete thoughts
  • Unusual excitability
  • Mood swings

Behavioral Signs

Any sudden changes in behavior can be clear indicators of a problem. While some of the behavioral signs of Ritalin addiction also apply to other drug dependencies, there are a few abuse indications for this drug. These include:

  • Running out of Ritalin prescriptions early.
  • Faking symptoms to get Ritalin prescriptions.
  • Hiding or lying about Ritalin use.
  • Frequently taking Ritalin pills.
  • Continuing to use Ritalin despite its negative side-effects.
  • Spending a great deal of time using, obtaining, or recovering from Ritalin.
  • Isolation from work, family, and social life.
  • Impulsive behaviors.
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies.
  • Uncooperative attitude.
  • Worsening performance at school or work.
  • Abusing other substances (poly-substance).
  • Relationship problems.
  • A decline in personal hygiene.

Other Abuse Signs

Aside from the signs above, there are a few other identifying behaviors to watch out for if you suspect someone has a Ritalin addiction.

“Doctor Shopping”

Most doctors will restrict the amount of Ritalin a person can obtain and will only prescribe a certain amount. People who are addicted to Ritalin will often resort to finding multiple doctors who can give them prescriptions for the drug. This can be a more extreme sign of addiction, as the individual is taking desperate measures to acquire more than the prescribed amount. As part of this doctor shopping, individuals will also tend to travel great distances to different pharmacies to remain undetected.

Mood Swings

In the early stages of Ritalin use, an individual is likely to be chatty, focused, and vibrant. But as is the case with most long-term stimulant abuse, individuals can eventually become withdrawn and depressed. If someone you know was previously sociable and easygoing but is suddenly hostile and doesn’t want to engage in conversation, this could be a sign of addiction.

Financial Problems

Like many drug addictions, excessive use can lead to financial burdens. Individuals may struggle to pay for their addiction while maintaining daily living costs such as rent and bills. Also, long-term drug use may cause them to lose their jobs, resulting in a downward spiral of substance abuse and financial problems.

Cognitive/Psychiatric Symptoms

Chronic Ritalin use can also exacerbate some of the negative side effects which include confusion, mania, or hallucinations. If an individual regularly uses Ritalin, they can end up in a negative loop, where a chronic release of dopamine leads to mental health conditions such as depression.

No Longer Needing Ritalin for the Original Issue

If an individual’s original condition is no longer an issue and they simply take Ritalin for its effects, then this can also signal a problem. For example, if someone started taking Ritalin for ADHD but they no longer need it for that issue, then it’s a clear sign that they’re addicted.

Long-Term Health Consequences

Long-term Ritalin use can leave lasting and damaging effects on a person’s health, especially when it comes to the circulatory system. The physical consequences of long-term use include, but are not limited to:

  • Sleep difficulties
  • Fatigue
  • Aggression
  • Heart disease
  • Weight loss
  • Headaches
  • Tremors
  • Constipation
  • Seizures
  • Skin discoloration (linked to the Ritalin skin patch)
  • Delayed growth in children

The long-term psychological consequences of Ritalin use include:

  • Inability to concentrate
  • Lack of motivation
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Lethargy
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Mood swings
  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations
  • Anxiety
  • Panic attacks

Another important thing to look out for is a potential Ritalin overdose. Key signs and symptoms of an overdose include:

  • Sweating
  • Dehydration
  • Vomiting
  • Tremors
  • Restlessness
  • Hallucinations
  • Panic
  • Twitching or spasms
  • Aggression
  • Hallucinations
  • Changes to personality
  • Depression
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • High blood pressure
  • Seizures
  • Swelling or numbing of the feet, hands, or ankles
  • Muscle pain
  • Delusions
  • Lower abdominal pain
  • Psychosis with symptoms that resemble schizophrenia
  • Sudden heart attack (even without a history of heart disease)

Ritalin Addiction Resources

At RehabAid.com, we are dedicated to helping people recover from problematic substance use and associated mental health disorders. If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol, you are not alone. Information on treatment and support options is readily available through the National Helpline of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) at 1-800-662-4357. To further assist you along the path to recovery, the treatment center locator on our website allows you to easily find rehabilitation programs and services in your local area.

We provide our readers with factual, evidence-based content concerning the causes and nature of addiction, as well as available treatment options. However, this informative content is intended for educational purposes only. It is by no means a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. With regard to any addiction-related health concerns, you should always seek the guidance of a qualified, registered physician who is licensed to practice medicine in your particular jurisdiction. You should never avoid or delay seeking professional health care advice or services based on information obtained from our website. Our authors, editors, medical reviewers, website developers, and parent company do not assume any liability, obligation, or responsibility for any loss, damage, or adverse consequences alleged to have happened directly or indirectly as a result of the material presented on RehabAid.com

About the Author

Jenn Tomomitsu, PhD

Jenn is a Canadian writer and poet with a background in psychology, sociology, and natural health. She is the founder of The Master in You, a mental wellness site that provides information about the role that thoughts and emotions play in our physical and emotional health. Jenn is passionate about inner growth and the power of the mind-body connection, and this informs her writing and research on addiction treatment. On Rehabaid, Jenn aims to write accessible, informative content and provide resources that can help people make empowered and informed decisions about their recovery.

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