Ritalin’s Effects and Risk of Abuse

This article will discuss Ritalin’s intended uses, its potential side effects, the ways that it is abused and the health risks of misusing it.

What Is Ritalin?

Ritalin bottle

Ritalin is a brand name for the drug methylphenidate.1 Ritalin is primarily prescribed for the management of:1

  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Narcolepsy, a chronic sleep disorder manifested as overwhelming daytime drowsiness or sudden attacks of sleep.

Ritalin is currently prescribed in both immediate-release tablet and extended-release capsule forms. Immediate-release Ritalin provides a release of all of the medication into the body immediately, has a short duration of action, and is taken multiple times each day. In contrast, the extended-release, or long-acting, form of Ritalin release the medication over many hours, allowing the individual to take their prescription less often and making it easier to adhere to the medication regimen.2

Ritalin Side Effects

Ritalin is an effective medication for those who take it as prescribed by a doctor, with the most common side effects being insomnia, stomachache, headache, and decreased appetite. However, Ritalin does have a relatively long list of potential side effects that range from mild to serious. Other side effects of Ritalin include:1

  • Nausea.
  • Irritability.
  • Nervousness.
  • Rapid heartbeat.
  • Verbal or motor tics.
  • Sweating.
  • Weight loss related to appetite changes.
  • Changes in eyesight/blurry vision.
  • Increased risk of seizures, particularly in those with seizure history.
  • Priapism (prolonged, painful erections).
  • Slowed growth in children.
  • Depression or other mood changes.
  • Paranoia/suspiciousness.
  • Delusions.
  • Hallucinations.

For those taking Ritalin under the guidance of a physician, side effects are usually managed effectively or diminish in severity with time. More severe side effects may require a switch in medication.

In the case of Ritalin misuse, you may be more likely to experience more or more severe side effects or overdose.7 Between 2012 and 2018, the rate of overdose deaths involving psychostimulants including Ritalin increased an average of 30% every year.8

Ritalin Abuse: How Common Is it?

Missing pills

Unfortunately, Ritalin and other prescription stimulants like Adderall are abused with relative frequency.

Each day in 2019, an estimated 2,500 Americans age 12 or older began misusing prescription stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall.9 The same year, almost 5 million Americans 12 and older admitted to past-year prescription stimulant misuse.9

Some people who misuse stimulants will eventually develop an addiction, clinically called a “stimulant use disorder.” In 2019, about 188,000 young adults in the U.S. had a prescription stimulant disorder in the previous year, while just over 300,000 adults 26 years or older met the criteria for this disorder the same year.9

Ritalin Withdrawal

If you’ve developed a physiological dependence on Ritalin—meaning you need Ritalin to feel normal—you are likely to experience numerous withdrawal symptoms when you significantly cut back or try to stop completely.1

As severe depression may accompany stimulant withdrawal after a period of misuse, some people may benefit from the supportive care of a supervised detox when stopping use of Ritalin.1,12 Other Ritalin withdrawal symptoms include:13

  • Fatigue.
  • Increased hunger.
  • Changing sleep patterns (sleeping too much or too little).
  • Vivid dreams/nightmares.

Help for Ritalin Abuse

Doctor and Patient at Ritalin Rehab Center

For someone who is worried about ending their Ritalin use alone and wants help, substance abuse treatment includes physical and mental health assessments which will help gauge the medical care required for stimulant withdrawal.

Following detox, treatment for addiction to stimulants involves counseling, group therapy, case management and skills training to set the stage for successful recovery after treatment.