Last Updated Dec 2, 2021
Ritalin (methylphenidate) is a prescription medication that is dispensed for the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
As a stimulant medication, Ritalin can be habit-forming. This means that when taken over a period of time, the brain and body get used to the way the medication interacts in the system. This can cause dependence, leading to withdrawal symptoms when the drug processes out of the body.
Ritalin is also a medication that is commonly abused, often as a “study drug” to enhance academic performance and one’s ability to focus and stay awake for longer. Regular Ritalin abuse can lead to addiction.
Ritalin addiction is compulsive drug-seeking and using behavior. It commonly requires professional addiction treatment to achieve lasting recovery.
What Is Ritalin?
Ritalin is a brand-name formulation of methylphenidate, a stimulant medication prescribed to treat ADHD in both children and adults. It is also used to treat narcolepsy, a daytime sleep disorder. For ADHD, Ritalin works to increase focus, improve attention, and manage impulse control issues that accompany the condition.
Between 2016 and 2019, approximately 6 million children between the ages of 3 and 17 were diagnosed with ADHD, and just over 60 percent were medicated.
Ritalin is one of the most common medications prescribed for ADHD. It is also a Schedule II controlled substance as classified by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) due to its high potential for diversion, misuse, and physical and psychological dependence.
Ritalin can be abused for its potential cognitive effects or as a recreational drug. It is also habit-forming, meaning that regular use of Ritalin can lead to drug dependence and addiction.
How Does Ritalin Impact the Mind & Body?
Ritalin is a stimulant medication, which means that it speeds up functions of the central nervous system. This can mean increased heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and body temperature.
It also increases levels of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a chemical messenger, or neurotransmitter, that is involved in motivation, cognition, impulse control, and feelings of pleasure.
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by difficulty paying attention and focusing, hyperactivity, and trouble controlling impulses. This could be related to low levels of dopamine. Increasing these levels with a stimulant medication such as Ritalin can have a calming and focusing effect.
For someone who does not have ADHD, however, Ritalin can have the opposite effect. It may keep the person awake, increase energy levels, and cause euphoria.
With repeated use, the brain can become accustomed to Ritalin impacting its dopamine levels and will stop producing the neurotransmitter at normal rates without the drug’s interaction. This can lead to dips in dopamine when the drug wears off, triggering a strong desire to take more of the drug. Mood swings and uncomfortable physical side effects may follow.
Drug cravings and withdrawal symptoms can prompt compulsive drug use. This leads to an inability to stop taking Ritalin, or drug addiction.
What Are the Effects of Taking Ritalin?
Ritalin changes the chemical makeup of the brain, which leads to a flood of dopamine. This can stimulate cognition, reasoning, problem-solving, and attention abilities while decreasing the need for sleep.
In someone with low dopamine levels, such as is suspected with ADHD, this can have a calming effect. On someone with high or more regulated levels of dopamine, Ritalin can increase energy and activity levels.
Taking Ritalin without a medical need and prescription for the medication can have negative impacts on the brain and brain chemistry, leading to increased risk-taking and behavioral changes, disruption in the sleep/wake cycle, and unhealthy weight loss.
Ritalin is also addictive, and the risks for overdose and addiction go up with misuse. Methylphenidate (Ritalin) has a similar mechanism of action in the brain as cocaine.
What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Ritalin Addiction?
Ritalin addiction occurs due to repeated misuse or abuse of Ritalin. Any use of Ritalin without a prescription — or in a way other than as prescribed (higher doses, altering the medication, taking it between doses, or doctor “shopping” to receive more prescriptions) — is abuse.
Signs of Ritalin addiction include the following:
- Using the drug for longer or in higher doses than intended
- A desire and inability to stop taking Ritalin
- Cravings for Ritalin
- Tolerance (needing more Ritalin each time to feel the effects)
- Using Ritalin in physically risky situations
- Continuing to use Ritalin even when doing so will have known negative interpersonal, physical, or mental health effects
- Lack of desire to do activities that were previously enjoyed
- Substantial time spent obtaining Ritalin, using it, and recovering from its use
- Difficulties keeping up with obligations at work, school, or home
- Drug dependence and withdrawal symptoms when it wears off
Additional symptoms of Ritalin addiction can include the following:
- Mood swings
- Changes in sleeping and eating patterns
- Weight loss
- Increased social isolation
- Drop in grades at school
- Changes in social circle
- Lack of attention to personal hygiene and appearance
What Are the Causes of Addiction to Ritalin?
Addiction is a complex disease, and there is no single cause. Instead, addiction to Ritalin is due to both biological and environmental factors. Genetics can play a role and so can stressors in your environment.
Potential contributing factors for the development of addiction include the following:
- Family or personal history of addiction
- Biological factors, such as underlying medical or mental health conditions
- Stressful home environment and trauma (especially childhood trauma)
- Easy access to Ritalin
- Family or friends who abuse drugs or have addictions
Why Do People Abuse Ritalin?
More than 5 million people misused a prescription stimulant in 2020, which includes use of methylphenidate or Ritalin. Abuse of prescription stimulants was highest for those ages 18 to 25.
This is likely because Ritalin has commonly been abused as a study drug by college students. This drug can temporarily increase focus, attention, and memory, helping students stay awake longer to study.
Between 4 percent and 55 percent of college students report use of a study drug without a valid prescription at some point in their lives. The truth is that long-term Ritalin abuse actually seems to have adverse effects on GPA and academics. It also brings many adverse physical and mental health effects that tend to negatively affect academic performance.
Ritalin can also be used as a recreational drug of abuse for the euphoria it can create. When abused in this manner, it is often used in conjunction with other substances such as alcohol. This can greatly increase the potential for a life-threatening overdose and the rate at which addiction develops.
What Are the Symptoms of Ritalin Withdrawal?
Ritalin is typically a medication that is not designed to be stopped “cold turkey” even if you are taking it as prescribed. Stopping it suddenly can cause withdrawal symptoms if your brain and body are dependent on it.
Since Ritalin is a central nervous system stimulant medication, when you stop taking it suddenly, dopamine and norepinephrine levels drop sharply. Withdrawal then ensures, which can include depressant side effects.
Symptoms of Ritalin withdrawal include the following:
- Sleep issues
- Mood swings
- Trouble focusing
- Drops in heart rate and blood pressure
Can You Overdose on Ritalin?
The brain and body can become overwhelmed by Ritalin in high or toxic doses, or if it is mixed with other substances. Overdose involving multiple substances, particularly a depressant like alcohol, can be especially dangerous, as each substance can counteract the other and mask some of each substance’s side effects.
A Ritalin overdose can be fatal and requires immediate medical attention.
Symptoms of Overdose
A Ritalin (methylphenidate) overdose is a medical emergency. Symptoms can include the following:
- Blurred vision
- Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
- Fast breathing
- Tremors or muscle twitches
- Sweating and flushing
- Fast heart rate
- Widening of the pupils
- Dry mouth or nose
- Muscle weakness
- Dark urine
- Extreme happiness in odd situations
- Loss of consciousness
Treatment Options for Addiction to Ritalin
Ritalin addiction can be treated in an inpatient rehab or outpatient setting, depending on the needs of the individual.
Inpatient programs are often ideal if there are underlying medical or mental health conditions, if Ritalin has been abused in high doses for a long time, in cases of polysubstance drug abuse, or if there is a previous history of addiction. Inpatient rehab provides a high level of structure and support around the clock.
Outpatient programs can also be effective for lower levels of addiction and people with good support systems at home.
Both inpatient and outpatient programs usually have the following components:
- Group and individual counseling sessions
- Behavioral therapies
- Medication management
- Life skills training
- Dual diagnosis treatment for multiple conditions
- Relapse prevention training
- Support group meetings
- Family therapy
Treatment is most beneficial when it is tailored directly to each person, and treatment approaches may change as individuals progress in therapy.
With the right combination of treatments in place, you can learn to combat negative thoughts and behaviors with positive replacements. You’ll build a strong foundation in recovery that enables you to resist substance abuse triggers.
Ultimately, comprehensive addiction treatment can help you to sustain long-term recovery from Ritalin addiction. But you first need to reach out for that help. Take the first step today.
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Ritalin Poses Cognitive Risks to Those Without ADHD. (June 2017). Pharmacy Times.
Methylphenidate. (July 2019). Drug Enforcement Administration.
Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. (2021). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Mitigating Risks of Students Use of Study Drugs Through Understanding Motivations for Use and Applying Harm Reduction Theory: A Literature Review. (October 2017). Harm Reduction Journal.
Methylphenidate. (January 2022). National Library of Medicine.