Stimulant use disorder

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at September 23, 2016
StartDiseasesStimulant use disorder

Common stimulants like cocaine, methamphetamine, and amphetamines can increase alertness and energy levels in those who use them. Often, dependency on these substances can reach unhealthy levels and begin to cause certain health issues. The problems associated with this abuse of stimulants is referred to as stimulant use disorder.


Definition & Facts

Stimulant use disorder is defined as a range of health complications associated with the abuse of stimulants, most commonly cocaine, methamphetamine, and amphetamines. This is a fairly new diagnosis that affects a large population, as over 913,000 people were estimated to be stimulant abusers in 2013 just from cocaine use alone.

Symptoms & Complaints

Some of the most common symptoms of stimulant use disorder are as follows:

  • Uncontrollable stimulant cravings that can become obsessive if not quickly satisfied with stimulant use
  • Increased tolerance to the effects of stimulants, therefore requiring increasingly larger quantities of the chosen drug over a period of time
  • Withdrawal when off of stimulants that can lead to negative physical reactions and a dramatic shift in mood
  • Taking more stimulants than needed or were initially prescribed
  • Feeling addicted to stimulants against will, even when a desire to stop using them is present
  • Using prescription stimulants recklessly and for a different purpose than they were prescribed.

Those who are affected by this disorder often have common complaints about several physical ailments. These include nausea and indigestion issues, a rapid loss of weight, inability to regulate body temperature, feelings of weakness, a painful tightness of the chest, and dangerously high blood pressure or low blood pressure among others.


Stimulant use disorder can be caused by a combination of genetic factors, environmental factors, and psychological factors. The risk for developing an addiction or dependence on stimulants is significantly higher in those with a family history of drug abuse. Even if not exposed directly to a family member's drug habits, genetic factors that get passed down may increase the chances of a substance abuse problem developing.

This risk is even further increased for those who come from an environment in which drug use is normalized by friends, families, or peers. Early exposure to stimulants in the environment can lead to a dependency later on due to peer-pressure, normalization, or the perceived notion that stimulant use can be beneficial under certain circumstances.

Lastly, the presence of a mental disorder may leave someone with a predisposition towards relying on drugs and may also increase the chances of the drugs being more heavily abused. Being male also puts one at a higher risk for developing an addiction to stimulants and subsequently developing stimulant use disorder at some point in life.

Diagnosis & Tests

Doctors will look for the following four behaviors while trying to arrive at a stimulant use disorder diagnosis:

  • Impaired control: wanting to quit stimulants but can't, using stimulants for longer than necessary, using greater quantities of stimulants than necessary, or constantly craving stimulants
  • Social impairment: the continued use of stimulants despite negative social consequences including loss of employment, family conflicts, failure to fulfill any or all responsibilities, strains on interpersonal relationships, and more
  • Risky use: the use of stimulants despite the harm they are causing to one's health, or the use of stimulants at dangerous times such as while driving, while caring for children, or while at work
  • Pharmacological indicators: the presence of withdrawal symptoms once the stimulant is taken away, and the increased tolerance to stimulants which requires a greater quantity for a similar effect or high

In order to be diagnosed as having a stimulant use disorder, one must exhibit at least two of the above mentioned behaviors. The greater the number of behaviors exhibited, the more severe the stimulant use disorder is considered to be. After a proper diagnosis and evaluation, a treatment plan can be put into place.

Treatment & Therapy

Before proper treatment of stimulant use disorder can officially begin, the affected party must first go through a detox period. All stimulants must have time to exit the system, and during this process a doctor will work closely with patients to ease and monitor the physical effects of withdrawal. Detox times can vary slightly depending on the severity of the addiction and how concentrated the stimulants in the system are, but on average it takes one week to fully detox enough for treatment to proceed.

Unlike many other substance abuse treatment plans, the treatment of stimulant abuse does not involve the use of any pharmaceuticals. One form of treatment for stimulant use disorder is an in-patient stay at a rehabilitation center. This stay often involves extensive psychotherapy (talk therapy) and support groups. This stay could be as short as 30 days or it could last for several months depending on the severity of the addiction.

Since psychological factors can so greatly contribute to the development of stimulant use disorder, therapy should be continued even after a patient leaves the rehabilitation center. This allows any lingering mental health issues to be addressed and coped with in a healthier way than turning back to stimulants.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Physicians have an opportunity to prevent stimulant use disorder, as they are in direct contact with the stimulant abuser and are the ones monitoring health. During doctor's visits, physicians have the ability to help patients point out misuse or abuse of a stimulant that the patient might not have otherwise recognize. Additionally, physicians can screen for stimulants and stimulant levels in the body, preventing the addiction to go further than it may have already.

Family and friends can also play a key role in the prevention of this disorder. Family and friends have the opportunity to educate loved ones about the dangers of substance abuse, and specifically the abuse of stimulants.