ADHD stimulants are prescription medications designed to address the symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, which typically appears in childhood and can continue to exert its effects in adulthood. Significant numbers of people abuse these medications by taking them without a prescription or using them in ways not sanctioned by a prescribing doctor. In a study published in 2014 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, a team of American researchers examined how often people who abuse a stimulant ADHD medication also have problems related to the use/misuse of at least one other type of substance.
When most people take stimulants, they experience changes in their central nervous systems that make them more susceptible to mental agitation, and may also lose some of their ability to maintain focus. However, when a person with ADHD takes a stimulant medication prescribed for this disorder, they commonly experience a paradoxical effect that manifests as a decrease in agitation levels and an improvement in focusing abilities. Active ingredients in ADHD medications sold in the U.S. include the stimulant amphetamine, a related stimulant called dextroamphetamine and a stimulant called methylphenidate, which is not derived from amphetamine. The best-known amphetamine- and dextroamphetamine-containing ADHD treatment is sold under the brand name Adderall. The best-known methylphenidate-containing treatment is sold under the name Ritalin.
Prescription stimulants are the third most commonly abused medications in the U.S., according to figures compiled by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. In the average month, roughly 0.05 percent of all American adults, teenagers and preteens misuse one of these medications. Motivations for abuse vary from person to person. Some people seek to exploit these medications purely for their drug effects, while others use them as part of an attempt to improve athletic performances. In addition, substantial numbers of young people abuse ADHD stimulants by employing them as “study drugs” to improve academic performance. However, data compiled by the National Institute on Drug Abuse strongly indicates that people who don’t have ADHD don’t experience any academic improvements when they take these medications. In fact, use of ADHD stimulants as study drugs can result in lower grades, not higher grades.
People diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder typically have very low chances of developing a stimulant addiction either in childhood or in later life if they follow their doctors’ dosing instructions. However, anyone who takes a prescribed ADHD medication in ways not prescribed by their doctor significantly increases the odds of developing diagnosable problems. This same fact also holds true for individuals who take ADHD medications without a prescription.
In the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from Columbia University and several institutions affiliated with Johns Hopkins University used data gathered from multiple years of an annual federal project called the National Survey on Drug Use and Health to assess how often abusers of ADHD stimulant medications also have problems with other substances. The researchers used data from this same survey to identify the factors that make it more likely that an ADHD stimulant abuser will take part in other forms of substance use/abuse.
After reviewing the survey findings, the researchers identified four distinct patterns of problematic substance use in people who already abuse an ADHD medication. The majority of ADHD stimulant abusers (53.3 percent) have little chance of developing problems with any other substances. Another 28.8 percent have strong risks for developing problems with marijuana and/or alcohol consumption, while 13.3 percent have considerable risks for developing problems with some other prescription medication. In addition, 4.6 percent of all ADHD stimulant abusers have elevated risks for developing simultaneous problems with more than one other substance, including alcohol, marijuana and/or prescription medications.
The study’s authors concluded that the underlying factors at play vary for people in each of the four identified groups of ADHD stimulant abusers. Specific areas of difference include such things as the typical level of mental well-being and details of demographic background (age, gender, racial/ethnic heritage, etc.). Notably, those individuals at-risk for problems with two or more additional substances have the highest odds of experiencing mental health problems and requiring some sort of care for their condition. The authors note that, overall, the average ADHD stimulant abuser has fairly small chances of developing simultaneous problems with other substances.