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Long-Term Health Effects of Use

People who take methamphetamine report feeling a sensation of euphoria that is so strong and so persistent, that it’s unlike anything they’ve ever felt before. In order to replicate that feeling, they may go back to using meth over and over again, until that use becomes compulsive and outside the realm of their conscious control. As this use stretches from hours into days and then into months, these users do an extreme amount of damage to their bodies. Some of this damage can be corrected, but other conditions will remain for years, even when the person stops using meth altogether.

Meth and the Brain

The positive sensations associated with meth use begin in the brain. When a brain is functioning normally, untouched by drugs, it releases the neurotransmitter dopamine when it is presented with something that causes pleasure, or is about to cause pleasure. Eating good food, having sex or seeing a loved one can all cause a surge of dopamine. But as an article produced by PBS makes clear, the release of dopamine caused by meth is unlike anything the user might experience naturally. The article states that people who use meth experience a jump in dopamine from 100 to 200 units, which is 12 times as much as a person might experience in response to food. People who flood their bodies with dopamine in this way burn out their dopamine production sites, as well as their dopamine reception sites. As a result, they may be unable to experience any pleasure at all, unless they’re given access to meth.

This burnout of the dopamine mechanism can do more than cause a persistent feeling of sadness and depression. Dopamine is also involved in memory and the ability to complete complex tasks. People who use methamphetamine for long periods may have difficulty in both of these areas, and that damage may be incredibly persistent. According to research conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), people who abused meth were less able to complete tests of fine motor skills and memory. In fact, the researchers suggested that the damage was equivalent to the damage caused by 40 years of aging. The NIDA reports that the dopamine system can go through a healing process, and some people who abstain seem to generate new dopamine receptor branches in their brains yet these same people may still be unable to perform memory tests at normal levels. They simply may not be able to recover their memory abilities.

Dopamine is also involved in motor control. In order to complete smooth movements, the brain must send a signal through long tangles of nerves, and that signal must be unbroken from the time it leaves the brain until it reaches the muscle it’s trying to control. Long-term meth use seems to limit the brain’s ability to send out these strong, smooth signals and as a result, some people who abuse meth develop a jittering, skittering gait that’s similar to a gait someone with Parkinson’s disease would use. This might also be damage that can’t be corrected.

According to an article published by the University of Arizona, people who abuse meth for long periods also develop repetitive behaviors that are compulsive. They might wash the car over and over again, or they might put objects together and take them apart again repeatedly. It’s unclear how long this behavior lasts.
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Meth and Infection

Meth can be abused in a variety of ways, but many people choose to heat the drug and inject it directly into their veins. Where injections given in a doctor’s office are often considered safe, as they’re given with clean needles in a sterile environment, people who use meth may not take precautions to ensure their safety. With each injection, they may be introducing bacteria, and since methamphetamine reduces the body’s ability to heal from an infection, these injection sites can quickly become deep pockets. Some infections then spread throughout the body.

Some meth users share needles with one another, and by sharing needles, they may put themselves at risk for a variety of infections at the site of the injection. For example, long-term meth use has also been linked to hepatitis C infection. In one study, published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 44 percent of people who injected meth were infected with the hepatitis C virus. Some of these people might have shared needles with people who had hepatitis C, while others might have had unprotected sex while under the influence of meth and contracted the infection via that route.

People under the influence of meth may engage in risky sexual behavior, and this could also lead to HIV/AIDS. For example, according to an article published in Public Health Reports, gay men studied who use meth had 13.6 sex partners within the previous year, compared to 6.9 for gay men who did not use meth. It seems that the drug lowers inhibitions, and this could make it more likely that people would switch partners often or have sex with people they’ve just met. This risky sex is not limited to people who inject methamphetamine. For example, a study in the Western Journal of Medicine found that non-injecting methamphetamine use was linked to lower condom use and higher rates of prostitution and sex with known injection drug users. Using meth was also associated with sexually transmitted diseases.

It’s true that many infections can be successfully treated with antibiotics or other prescription therapies. But, some infections can do a severe amount of damage if they’re not stopped in the early stages, when they are easy to treat. For example, HIV can be controlled with medications and many people who have this infection go on to live long and meaningful lives. But, if the infection is not caught early, it can progress to AIDS, and this condition can be much more difficult to treat. Any infection in someone who uses meth should be considered serious.
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Meth and Oral Health

Methamphetamine can be disastrous to oral health. According to the American Dental Association, meth can ruin teeth by:

  • Reducing production of saliva
  • Increasing an urge for sweets
  • Causing users to grind their teeth together
  • Encouraging users to neglect their oral health for days at a time

People who use meth for long periods develop a characteristic set of symptoms commonly referred to as “meth mouth.” Their teeth may seem yellow, black or green and the teeth seem to crumble away when they are touched. Cavities are prominent as the enamel of the teeth is often worn away by the acidity of meth.

Cleanings and fillings may assist with some of this damage, but some people who abuse meth develop such extensive damage to all of their teeth that they simply must have them removed. They may not be eligible for implants, either, as they may not have healthy jawbones that can accept the screws for the implants. They may be asked to go without teeth for a period of time, until their bones and gums heal and they can be fitted with dentures.
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Meth and Psychosis

A typical meth-related trip lasts for 12 hours or more. During that time, people might:

  • See things that aren’t there
  • Become convinced that others will hurt them
  • Develop a creeping sensation under the skin
  • Hear voices
  • Feel bursts of violent rage

These hallucinations and sensations seem to leave a permanent mark on the brain, and some people who use meth for long periods develop flashback syndrome. One moment, the person feels happy and normal, and the next moment, all of those terrible feelings associated with the meth trip come right back to the present. According to an article published by the University of Arizona, 36 to 64 percent of users developed these symptoms of psychosis, and they were likely to have a flashback when they were confronted with stressful situations. Flashbacks can be fatal, especially if the person chooses to attack someone else or run into traffic while under the influence of the flashback. Unfortunately, they can’t always be treated. There are no active drugs to remove from the person’s system. Sedation can sometimes help to keep a person from causing harm, but the person may need to go to a hospital to get that level of care.
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Meth and the Skin

People who abuse meth often develop small, weeping sores on their faces and their hands. At times, these sores are self-inflicted. While under the influence, people sometimes develop a persistent hallucination that they have bugs or insects crawling beneath their skin, and they may pick at their skin as a result, tearing small holes in the surface. Again, meth reduces the body’s ability to heal, so these sores can grow larger and larger with time. Meth also tends to make the skin dry, and people who use meth don’t care for their skin while they’re under the influence. This makes their skin more likely to tear when it is scratched. As a result, this meth-related skin damage can be extensive, and when the person is sober, the lesions can be painful.

Ointments and antibiotics bring some relief, but some long-term meth users must have more extensive care from a dermatologist. Deep lesions often contain pockets of dead tissue that must be removed via surgical procedures. This can cause scarring.
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Preventing Damage

Reading this laundry list of health effects can be disheartening, especially since some of these conditions can’t be truly cured. That’s why early intervention for meth abuse is so important. The longer the person continues to abuse the drug, the more likely it is that the damage will be persistent and/or chronic. Treatment works, and with the right help, perhaps some of the more serious effects of meth use can be avoided.

At Axis, we provide an extensive amount of help to people struggling with addiction. In our beautiful facility, we give clients the medical assistance they need, and the psychological tools they can use to stop the patterns of abuse they’ve been following for so long. Please contact us today to find out more.
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Further Reading