Ritalin is one of the common treatment options used for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Although this stimulant can improve symptoms of ADHD, because of the way it works, it can also cause some side effects. Unfortunately, Ritalin can also be misused, and that comes with the risk of more serious side effects throughout the body.
When you first start taking Ritalin for ADHD, the side effects are usually temporary. See your doctor if any symptoms worsen or last beyond a few days.
Find out more about the various symptoms and side effects that you might be at risk for while using Ritalin.
The effects of Ritalin on the body
Ritalin (methylphenidate) is a nervous system stimulant that’s commonly used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in adults and children.
It’s a brand-name prescription medication that targets dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain to reduce common ADHD symptoms.
Though Ritalin is a stimulant, when used in ADHD treatment, it may help with concentration, fidgeting, attention, and listening skills.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 6.1 million U.S. children ages 2-17 (or 9.4 percent of children) were diagnosed with ADHD as of 2016.
Ritalin is just one form of treatment for ADHD. It’s often complemented with behavioral therapy.
Ritalin is sometimes used to treat narcolepsy, a sleep disorder.
As with all stimulants, this medication is a federally controlled substance. Unfortunately, it can be misused, which comes with the risk of serious side effects.
Ritalin should only be used with medical supervision. Your doctor will likely see you every few months to make sure the medication is working as it should.
Even if you take Ritalin correctly and don’t misuse it, it can carry the risk for side effects.
Central nervous system
Ritalin influences both dopamine and norepinephrine activity in your brain.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that affects pleasure, movement, and attention span. Norepinephrine is a stimulant.
Ritalin increases the action of these neurotransmitters by blocking their reabsorption into your brain’s neurons. The levels of these chemicals increase slowly, so your doctor will start you on the lowest possible dose and increase it in small increments, if necessary.
Ritalin may make it easier for you to concentrate, be less fidgety, and gain control of your actions. You may also find it easier to listen and focus at your job or in school.
If you’re already prone to anxiety or agitation, or have an existing psychotic disorder, Ritalin may worsen these symptoms.
If you have a history of seizures, this medication may cause more seizures.
Some people taking Ritalin experience blurred vision or other changes to eyesight. Other potential side effects include:
- trouble sleeping
- increased blood pressure
- racing heart beat (rare)
This medication can temporarily slow a child’s growth, especially in the first two years of taking it. That’s why your doctor will keep an eye on your child’s height.
Your doctor may suggest a ‘drug holiday’ (often done during the summer), which is when the drug is temporarily stopped. This can encourage growth, and also allows your child’s doctor to see how they do without taking the drug.
Ritalin, like other central nervous system stimulants, may be habit-forming. If you take a large dose, the quick rise in dopamine can produce a temporary feeling of euphoria.
Taking Ritalin in high doses or for a long time can be habit-forming. If you stop taking it abruptly, you may experience withdrawal.
Symptoms of withdrawal include sleep problems, fatigue, and depression. It’s better to taper off slowly and under a doctor’s care.
When misused, stimulants like Ritalin can cause feelings of paranoia and hostility.
Very high doses can lead to:
- shakiness or severe twitching
- mood changes
- delusions or hallucinations
If you have any of these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.
Ritalin can cause circulation problems. Your fingers and toes may feel cold and painful, and your skin may turn blue or red.
Stimulants can also raise your body temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate. You may feel jittery and irritable. That’s usually not a problem in the short term, but you should have regular exams to check your heart rate and blood pressure.
Stimulants should be taken with caution if you have pre-existing blood pressure or heart problems. Ritalin may increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.
Rare cases of sudden death have occurred in people who have structural heart abnormalities.
Misusing stimulants by crushing pills and injecting them can lead to blocked blood vessels. An overdose can lead to dangerously high blood pressure or irregular heartbeat.
High doses can also lead to life-threatening complications such as heart failure, seizures, and significantly high body temperature.
Ritalin can reduce appetite in some people. Other side effects include stomachache and nausea.
Misusing this drug can also cause vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea.
Over time, misuse of Ritalin can lead to malnutrition and related health problems. You may also experience unintentional weight loss.
When taken as prescribed, Ritalin doesn’t generally cause a problem with the respiratory system.
At first, though, Ritalin can increase your breathing slightly and also open up your airways. Such effects are temporary and will go away after a few days once your body gets used to a new prescription or dosage.
However, very high doses or long-term misuse can cause irregular breathing. Breathing problems should always be considered a medical emergency.
Muscular and skeletal systems
When you first start taking Ritalin, you might experience improved mood, and almost a sense of euphoria. This can translate to everyday physical activities being easier to accomplish.
In the long term, Ritalin only causes musculoskeletal complications when misused or taken in too large of doses.
Such cases can lead to muscle pain and weakness, as well as joint pain.
Males who take Ritalin may experience painful and prolonged erections. When this occurs, it’s usually after prolonged Ritalin use, or after your dose was increased.
It’s rare, but it sometimes requires medical intervention.