The Physical Effects of Methamphetamine Use

A highly addictive and powerful stimulant, methamphetamine (most commonly known as "meth") affects the central nervous system and results in a number of adverse physical effects on the body, some of which appear immediately while others develop over time. Methamphetamine belongs to a class of drugs known as amphetamines or stimulants. Adderall (amphetamine/dextroamphetamine), which is used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), also belongs to this class. But unlike FDA-approved medications like Adderall, illicit methamphetamines like "crystal meth" (which gets its name from its glassy appearance) and powdered "street meth" have long been thought to have a higher potential for misuse.

There are many effects of methamphetamine use, some of which have a shocking effect on a person's physical appearance. Other devastating health issues, such as those that affect the heart and brain, may not be outwardly visible.

Dental Problems

Long-term methamphetamine use results in severe dental problems (sometimes called "meth mouth"). The dental problems from methamphetamine use typically are caused by a combination of poor nutrition and poor dental hygiene as well as conditions caused by the drug. The use of meth often results in a condition known as xerostomia, or dry mouth, which can result in tooth decay and gum disease. Use can also lead to the development of bruxism, grinding and clenching of the teeth, which can cause tooth enamel to fracture over time.

One analysis reported that 96% of people who used methamphetamine had cavities, 58% had tooth decay that was untreated, and 31% had six or more missing teeth.

People who use methamphetamine also have higher rates of periodontal disease and are more likely to have other conditions such as disorders of the temporomandibular joint. Contrary to popular belief, research shows that individuals who smoke methamphetamine do not have higher rates of dental disease than those who snort or inject the drug.

Skin Issues

Skin issues are among the most highly visible effects of methamphetamine use. Methamphetamine inhibits the body's ability to repair itself. People who use meth can develop a host of skin issues including acne. Over time, the skin may begin to lose its luster and elasticity. Most notably, skin sores can develop as a result of formication, which is the sensation of insects crawling underneath your skin. The sensation commonly leads to obsessive, skin-damaging picking and scratching.

Weight Loss

Another physical effect of methamphetamine use is weight loss. Continued use of the drug can result in a gaunt, frail appearance. The drug's stimulant properties can create excessive spells of physical activity while at the same time suppressing the appetite. People who use methamphetamine not only have a decreased appetite, but are often agitated and energetic leading to fast weight loss. Nutritional deficits take a toll on the skin as well, contributing to an older appearance.

Heart Damage

Methamphetamine is responsible for a variety of cardiovascular problems, including rapid heart rate, irregular heartbeat, and increased blood pressure. Chronic use can cause the heart muscle to become enlarged, thick or rigid, making it harder for the heart to pump blood. According to one analysis, methamphetamine use can also exacerbate pre-existing underlying cardiac disorders like coronary atherosclerosis or cardiomyopathy, which increases the risk of myocardial infarction or even sudden cardiac death. And people who misuse methamphetamine appear to be at the highest risk for cardiovascular damage like premature coronary artery disease.

Psychosis and Mental Health Concerns

Significant anxiety, confusion, violent behavior, insomnia, and mood disturbances can all occur in people who misuse methamphetamine. In addition, a long-term user may present with various psychotic features such as paranoia, visual and auditory hallucinations, and delusions. Unfortunately, psychotic symptoms may last for years after a person has quit using methamphetamine, and stress can trigger spontaneous recurrences of methamphetamine psychosis.

Structural Changes in the Brain

Methamphetamine alters the brain structures that are instrumental in decision-making, hinders the ability to suppress counterproductive, useless behaviors, and impairs verbal learning. Methamphetamine use also is associated with structural and functional changes in the parts of the brain that are linked with memory and emotion, which could explain the emotional and cognitive problems seen in people who use methamphetamine, according to studies.

The Drug's Adverse Effects May Be Reversed

The good news is that certain neurobiological effects of chronic methamphetamine misuse appear to be reversible—at least partially. One study showed that although the biochemical markers for nerve damage persisted in the brain through six months of meth abstinence, the markers returned to normal after a year or more of being off meth.

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