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The Impact of Ecstasy on the Body and Treatment Options

The Foundation for a Drug-Free World states that 5 percent of people aged 12 and older in America had reported lifetime use of ecstasy in 2007. Derived from amphetamines, ecstasy is a psychoactive drug that acts as a hallucinogen. Unlike most other illicit substances, it was initially developed for use as a pharmaceutical drug under the name MDMA — 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine — in 1912. By the 1950s, it had garnered the attention of the United States Army as a tool for psychological warfare testing.

In the following decade, it evolved into a psychiatric treatment drug. It was soon after this, in the 1970s, that MDMA turned into the widely abused club drug it is known as today. For decades, it remained at the height of the club scene as the most desirable drug of abuse among partygoers. Sold as ecstasy by the mid-1980s, it was banned shortly thereafter due to concerns over safety. The drug is also known by the names MollyE, X, and 007.

Since the ban, many drugs have come along offering themselves as copycats of ecstasy, while they actually contain little to no trace of the drug at all, such as PMMA. Some of these substances may be even more dangerous than ecstasy, because those who use them often have no real idea what they are even ingesting. ABC News reported on six deaths that occurred in Florida and three in Chicago, Illinois, as a result of PMMA use between May and September of 2012, noting the drug’s ability to raise body temperatures as high as 108 degrees, inflicting those who use it with hyperthermia. The Foundation for a Drug-Free World states that many of these drugs that try to pass themselves off as ecstasy are actually laced with cocaine, LSD, amphetamines, caffeine, ephedrine, PCP, ketamine, and even rat poison.

Ecstasy is usually taken orally as a pill, but there are those who will smoke it, crush it to snort it, or even prepare it for injection. These avenues of administration may heighten the risk of adverse outcomes even more. While many will claim that the drug isn’t addictive, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Addiction may be less likely to occur overall simply because it’s not a drug that is generally used daily, but dependency does indeed happen.

What Impact Does It Have?

One of the biggest risks people take with abusing ecstasy is that they don’t actually know how much they are ingesting. The tablets often come with designs of hearts or butterflies pressed into them and one tablet could be a 15 mg dose while another that looks just like it could be 160 mg. When someone gets high on ecstasy, the high can last anywhere from six hours to a full day. Thus, the impact of the drug is quite variable. While pharmaceutical grade MDMA has a roughly 7-hour half-life, street forms of the drug are anyone’s guess. Initial effects usually set in around 30-45 minutes after ingestion.

Ecstasy has a profound effect on the body and most definitely the mind. In July 2015, a 24-year old male died in Las Vegas, and the cause of death was cited as MDMA intoxication with no other substances contributing to his demise, per Los Angeles Weekly. Still, many who abuse the drug also abuse other drugs along with it. In a study of 77 deaths where ecstasy was a factor, 30 involved other substances, per Forensic Science and Medical Pathology.

The Nervous System

The brain may be the most affected system in the body when it comes to ecstasy. The drug acts on neurotransmitters in the brain to produce large amounts of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. As a result, euphoria sets in. Often referred to as the drug for lovers, the substance reportedly intensifies sexual arousal and attraction. This means pleasure centers are more easily excited and tend to retain their heightened states of such excitement for longer periods of time. The drug is known to cause feelings of intense prowess and sexual excitement. Thus, it has led to an increased likelihood for both unplanned and unprotected sexual behaviors among many who use it.

Ecstasy will diminish hunger and tiredness so much that many in the treatment field consider the drug to be a stimulant. Often, those who abuse the drug do so for these reasons. Using ecstasy for weight loss as a study drug or stimulant to stay awake is common. Serotonin syndrome has been seen in some people who use the drug, as well as cerebral swelling and convulsions. In a study of people who use MDMA, 20-60 percent of the sampled participants showed a decrease in functioning serotonin cells on PET scans, per the University of Washington.

Cognitively, those who use ecstasy often feel a stronger connection to themselves and others. They may be more inclined to open up about their emotions and express feelings that they would usually be standoffish about. Conversation may flow more freely. For many who experience anxiety on a regular basis or have trouble connecting with peers, ecstasy acts as a social lubricant that makes life easier to endure.

On the flipside, the drug has been known to cause a great deal of mental health complications. While 29 percent of people with mental illness engage in substance abuse, per Help Guide, another large group of individuals who abuse drugs like ecstasy are suffering from psychiatric ailments that their substance abuse is directly causing.  Some frequent mental side effects of ecstasy use or abuse include:

  • Bouts of depression
  • Paranoid behavior
  • Psychosis
  • Confused state
  • Extreme anxiousness

These side effects often occur as part of the stage in which people come back down from the high ecstasy delivers, but can persist and develop into full-blown psychiatric conditions. Other common symptoms of coming down include irritability and fatigue. In more extreme cases, people have experienced vivid nightmares that disturb their sleep patterns and violent mood swings accompanied by aggressive behavior and panic attacks.

Ecstasy causes the neurons that produce serotonin and dopamine — both feel-good chemicals that make people experience happiness and pleasure — to dysfunction and slowly stop working on their own. Over time, they won’t produce these hormones without the influence of the drug backing them. This is what often leads to severe cases of depression. While these effects can be reversible in many cases, such as is seen in those who abuse heroin, it seems to be less common among people who abuse ecstasy.

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The Musculoskeletal System

Ecstasy generally causes muscular tension. Clenching the teeth and jaw are common shortly after a dose is taken, before psychoactive side effects begin to set it. A Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics study reported that concentrations of MDMA that are akin to what many who abuse the drug would use caused recurrent sensitivity of the skeletal muscle that is similar to contractures caused by caffeine. Abuse of the drug can also cause involuntary muscle spasms and movement of limbs. Rhabdomyolysis — the deterioration of cells within the muscles — is another common side effect.

The Renal System

Dehydration is common among people who use ecstasy. The drug causes dampened skin and excessive sweating that can inflict mineral and fluid loss fairly quickly. If the individual becomes dehydrated, hypoglycemia can also develop. Kidney and liver failure can both occur as a result of hyperthermia and other side effects caused by ecstasy.

Those who resort to injecting the drug face the same risks of infectious disease and skin infections as anyone else who injects drugs. In a study reported by the Journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 23 percent of people who used ecstasy had also engaged in drug injection practices, and 15 percent had done so in the previous six months. Healthy Day notes hepatitis C is a reality for around 73 percent of people who inject drugs in the United States. In 2013 alone, 3,096 people were diagnosed with HIV in America as a result of injection drug use practices, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. Interestingly, habitual use of ecstasy can actually cause acute hepatitis to develop organically.

Cardiac Complications

With the initial dose of ecstasy, the user may experience a sharp increase in blood pressure, as well as an accelerated heart rate that may be accompanied by palpitations and even develop into tachycardia. In many cases, these symptoms subside as psychoactive side effects take over, but sometimes they do not. In some instances, it leads to severe complications, such as blood clots, pulmonary hypertension, stroke, and heart attack.

The Respiratory System

Individuals who choose to smoke ecstasy are obviously putting toxins into their lungs and damaging their respiratory systems, but even those who take pills are at risk. There have been reported cases of pulmonary edema and adult respiratory distress syndrome, per American Family Physician.

When to Get Help

There are warning signs to look for in someone who uses ecstasy. These signs can be indicative of when a recreational abuse habit turns into something more severe. Addiction to ecstasy looks like this:

  • Needing to use more ecstasy than one used to just to keep feeling the high
  • Pulling away from friends, family, coworkers, and social functions to go home and get high instead
  • Using ecstasy to offset the “crash” of coming off the drug
  • Persistent use or abuse of ecstasy when it has only caused emotional, financial, legal, health-related, or other problems in life
  • Spending a lot of time and energy focused on buying and using the drug
  • Using more ecstasy than planned, even when specific limits were set in advance

People who abuse ecstasy may appear hostile at times and irritable if they haven’t had a dose in a while. They might lash out at loved ones and resort to unfavorable behaviors — like lying or stealing — to get the money they need for their supply or hide how much they are using. Some individuals who use this drug may exhibit outward symptoms of psychiatric problems, such as paranoia and extreme anxiety that causes panic attacks. If these behaviors are out of character for a loved one or friend, it’s important to take time to consider whether use of ecstasy could be causing them. Serious declines in health and deteriorating grooming habits are also cause for concern in conjunction with abuse of ecstasy.

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Choosing a Treatment Program

The client’s needs are the most indicative signs of the type of treatment that should be selected. If people have been abusing ecstasy for many years, they may need long-term treatment. If people are abusing other substances alongside this drug, which is often the case, that might warrant a longer stay in rehab, too. Those who are suffering from co-occurring mental health disorders generally need inpatient care.

Other things to consider include one’s lifestyle. Some people have children at home that they need to continue taking care of while getting treatment. Around 12 percent of the nation’s youth are living with a parental figure who is addicted to drugs or alcohol, the Child Welfare Information Gateway reports. In these cases, outpatient treatment that is nearby makes the most sense. Family obligations likely account for a large portion of the 81.6 percent of treatment admissions that were outpatient clients in 2013, per SAMHSA.

Treatment location is of specific concern since how far someone has to travel just to meet with a therapist or support group can really impact the likelihood of treatment retention. A Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy publication notes that individuals seeking treatment for depression were more likely to complete it if they had to travel one mile or less for such treatment. The easier it generally is for someone to get help, the more likely that person is to stick with it.

One of the most common questions many people have when they are researching treatment facilities is what they are supposed to do about their jobs. Contrary to popular belief, most people who seek treatment are employed. Fortunately for America’s workers, the Family and Medical Leave Act mandates that employers must allow their workers up to 12 weeks of time off during each year of work for family or medical issues. Substance abuse treatment is included under this umbrella coverage. That being said, many clients still aren’t keen on their employers or coworkers potentially knowing what’s going on in their personal lives. So, many of them still opt for outpatient care outside of working hours.

In 2011, the Drug Abuse Warning Network accounted for 22,498 people being treated in American emergency rooms for issues stemming from the use or abuse of Ecstasy. Despite that, only 4,689 people sought treatment for ecstasy abuse the following year, per SAMHSA.

If you, or someone you love, are suffering from ecstasy abuse or addiction, real help is available. With comprehensive care, recovery is possible, and a healthier life awaits.

With 11,592 rehab facilities in the nation today, there are definitely a wide range of options to treat ecstasy addiction, per the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Withdrawal from habitual ecstasy use can include withdrawal symptoms. Side effects include strong cravings, depersonalization, lethargy, hallucinations, delusions, mood swings, trouble sleeping, and memory loss. Luckily, many of these symptoms can be treated with mild medications that are safe for use under physician supervision.

Only facilities offering medical detox programs should be up for consideration. Continued therapy, peer support groups, and interventions to assist in the client’s transition into recovery are vital to success in rehab.

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