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Do ADHD Medications Predispose Children To Future Substance Use Disorders?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has been diagnosed in over 6.1 million children nationwide. The age of diagnosis keeps getting younger, and in 2016 nearly 388,000 children between the ages of two and five were diagnosed with ADHD. About 64 percent of children with ADHD also have another condition that affects their mental health:

  • more than half struggle with a behavior or conduct diagnosis
  • almost 33 percent have anxiety
  • autism spectrum disorder (14%), depression (17%) and Tourette’s syndrome (1%) also affect some children with ADHD

Many mental health diagnoses have been connected to substance use, however, there has been no indication that one causes the other. There also has not been a link solely between ADHD medications and future substance use or addiction.

ADHD Treatment Medications

Recommended treatment for ADHD usually includes medication and therapy. ADHD medications include stimulant and nonstimulant options, although the standard method of treatment is a stimulant medication. [inline_cta_one] Available ADHD medications include:

  • Non-Stimulant ADHD Medications
  • Strattera (atomoxetine)
  • Intuniv (guanfacine)
  • Kapvay (clonidine)
  • Stimulant ADHD Medications
  • Ritalin (methylphenidate)
  • Daytrana (methylphenidate)
  • Metadate (methylphenidate)
  • Desoxyn (methylphenidate)
  • Concerta (methylphenidate)
  • Adderall (dextroamphetamine and levoamphetamine)
  • Dexedrine (dextroamphetamine)
  • Vyvanse (lisdexamfetamine)
  • Focalin (dexmethylphenidate)

Stimulant Treatment For ADHD And Addiction

Of the more than six million youths receiving treatment for ADHD, over 3.7 million minors are being prescribed medication. Concerns regarding the effects of these medications have been consistently voiced, and research has continued to find side effects of these medications. Studies have continued over a number of years that investigate any connection between stimulant medications and addiction. However, recent studies have shown that treating ADHD with stimulant medication does not predispose children to use drugs or alcohol when they get older. A study from 2002 indicated that stimulant medications for ADHD resulted in less drug-seeking activity as adults, however, this study has not been replicated. Recent research has not been able to connect stimulant medications to an increase or decrease in substance use, drug seeking or addictive behaviors in individuals being treated for ADHD during childhood.

ADHD And Addiction

What the research has shown is that there is a connection between ADHD and addiction. However, ADHD is only considered a moderate risk factor for addiction in adults. There are additional factors that increase the risk associated with ADHD and addiction. For example, a child diagnosed with both ADHD and a behavioral or conduct disorder has a significantly high risk of developing an addiction. Many childhood ADHD symptoms have been linked to substance use later in life. Hyperactivity, inattention, and impulsivity have been linked to substance use disorders. More specifically, those behaviors in children at age three could predict alcohol misuse disorders at 21. Children who are restless, squirmy, fidgety and jumping around at ages six through ten were found to be more likely to use drugs and smoke cigarettes as adolescents and teens.

ADHD, Addiction And The Brain

Problems with dopamine systems in the brain have been linked to both ADHD and addiction. Specific areas of the brain that are part of the dopaminergic pathways, the reward center and the frontal cortex, have been found to be dysfunctional in individuals with ADHD. A person with ADHD may not be able to understand the severity of the consequences of substance use. Additionally, the lack of impulse control may also lead to compulsively fulfilling desires of immediate gratification with drug and alcohol use. ADHD and addiction seem to be connected, however, the connection does not appear to be a result of stimulant medications.

Overlap Of Stimulant Medications And Substance Use Disorders

Concerns regarding the stimulant medications prescribed for ADHD and addiction are valid. It seems many college students and professionals alike are misusing prescription drugs like Adderall and Ritalin for academic or professional gain. This type of prescription use can lead to addiction. However, it is not the same as an individual who takes a daily medication, as prescribed, to treat a condition like ADHD. A person who takes a prescription medication that is not prescribed to them, or in a way that it is not prescribed is misusing the drug. This behavior indicates a potential problem that can lead to addiction. A person abusing a stimulant medication may be in need of substance use rehab. A child who is struggling with ADHD and is taking a medication that is prescribed to them, as it is prescribed to them, is not abusing the medication and studies have indicated that they are not at risk for developing an addiction or substance use disorder.

Risks Associated With ADHD And Addiction

While there have not been definitive links between ADHD and addiction, some studies have shown that there are some additional risk factors that put individuals with ADHD at risk for developing a substance use disorder. These risk factors include:

  • co-occurring disorders (bipolar, ODD, conduct disorder, other behavioral conditions)
  • enrolled in a difficult college program
  • belonging to a frat or sorority
  • untreated ADHD symptoms
  • starting stimulant treatment during college
  • white or Latino race

Treatment Options For Stimulant Medications Addiction

Substance use treatment options are available for anyone struggling with a stimulant medication addiction. If you are not sure that someone you know may be abusing or addicted to a stimulant prescription medication, we are available to assist. Contact us today and we can help you with your unique situation, and discuss options that would work for you or your loved one.