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Common Medications for ADHD and Their Risk for Abuse

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common childhood neurodevelopmental disorders, affecting roughly 10 percent of children in America. ADHD can last into adulthood; many never receive a formal diagnosis but continue to experience the symptoms of ADHD. Fortunately, several medications help treat those symptoms in children and adults and allow them to function more effectively.  These medications, and how they act within the body as stimulants also mean that many ADHD medications have a risk for abuse. Find out more about that risk below.  

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Common ADHD Medications

There are several types of medication most commonly used to treat the symptoms of ADHD. 

  • Methylphenidate  (Ritalin or Concerta)
  • Lisdexamfetamine  (Vyvanse)
  • Dexamfetamine (Dexedrine)
  • Atomoxetine (Straterra)
  • Guanfacine (Tenex)
  • Amphetamine salts (Adderall) 

These medications are divided into two groups, stimulant, and non-stimulant based on their interaction with our central nervous system. The two main stimulants, Dexamfetamine, and Methylphenidate have existed since the 1930s and all variations of branded stimulants originate from them. These two stimulant medications are considered the most effective in treating the symptoms of childhood and adult ADHD. Non-stimulants, such as Guanfacine and Atomoxetine, while considered less effective may be prescribed if your child does not respond to stimulants and work in the same way as anti-depressant medication. About 10 percent of children with ADHD will not respond to stimulant-class ADHD drugs. In this article, we will focus on the stimulant class of ADHD medications. 

How ADHD Medications Work

The most current research into ADHD suggests functional impairments in our neurotransmitter systems, or how our brain cells communicate with each other, particularly those involving dopamine and norepinephrine. These two neuron pathways control executive functions such as motivation, reward perception, and motor function. They are known to be central to the pathophysiology of ADHD. As stimulants are the most effective medication to treat symptoms of ADHD they are the most commonly prescribed, around 70% of children on medication will be taking stimulants. Dexamfetamine and Methylphenidate work by stimulating the central nervous system, at therapeutic doses, they improve concentration, impulse control, and memory, by increasing the activity of dopamine and norepinephrine pathways in our brains. Children who take stimulants to treat ADHD symptoms do better with schoolwork and have an easier time making friends than children who remain unmedicated. 

ADHD Medication Side Effects

Taking stimulant ADHD medication may have many adverse, or negative, physical side effects that include

  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Hypotension (low blood pressure) and fainting
  • Tachycardia 
  • Raynaud’s Syndrome
  • Erectile dysfunction or prolonged erection
  • Gastrointestinal issues such as nausea, constipation, diarrhea, and abdominal pain
  • Blurred vision
  • Appetite loss
  • Excessive teeth grinding
  • Difficulty urinating 
  • Sweating profusely 

These adverse effects are rare when taking therapeutic doses of ADHD medication as prescribed by your doctor. The psychological effects of stimulants are as follows

  • Increased alertness, concentration, initiative, and self-confidence
  • Mood swings 
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Changes in libido
  • Grandiosity
  • Irritability
  • Repetitive or obsessive behaviors
  • Amphetamine psychosis (in very heavy users)

The amount of medication you use determines the severity and duration of adverse side effects, it is rare for those taking their medication as prescribed to experience negative effects. Addiction is a serious risk with heavy recreational use of ADHD medication but again is unlikely to develop with long term therapeutic use to treat ADHD symptoms. It is possible to overdose on ADHD medication, although with timely intervention it is rarely fatal.  

Can You Get High on ADHD Meds?

ADHD medications are powerful stimulants in the same family as MDMA (Ecstasy)  and Methamphetamines (Meth, speed). This class of drugs is used to increase alertness and is often used during all-night dance parties, also known as “raves”. At low to moderate doses these stimulants produce feelings of euphoria, a state of intense excitement and happiness. They also increase feelings of sociability and closeness with others, anecdotally called the “Hug drug”. Like all stimulants, ADHD medications can make the user feel full of energy and confidence. The ability to obtain a high from ADHD medication depends on your age and body weight, whether you have consumed alcohol and the method of ingestion. Many users of stimulants prefer to crush medication into a powder and snort it, which achieves a faster and more intense high than taking it orally. Snorting ADHD medication is dangerous and can cause serious health issues and even death. 

Are ADHD Meds Addictive?

ADHD stimulant medications are classified as a schedule II controlled substances in the United States, which means they present a high risk for abuse, and that abuse of the drug may lead to severe physical or psychological dependence. Tolerance to ADHD meds builds up very quickly, requiring you to take more of the drug to achieve the same euphoric effects. Taking more of the drug, or using them frequently never produces the same effect as the original dose because abusing ADHD meds depletes your serotonin, which is what causes the euphoria. Users coming off of an ADHD high may experience confusion, anxiety, paranoia, and depression. There is little evidence to support a physical dependency, but recreational use of these drugs often allows them to take on an exaggerated importance in people’s lives, dictating their social engagements and behavior. Long term abuse of ADHD medication may affect your brains’ ability to produce and distribute serotonin, the neurotransmitter that controls satisfaction, happiness, and optimism.  Simply put long term ADHD medication abuse can impair your ability to feel happiness and joy.   

Who is Most at Risk for Abusing ADHD Meds

Many people abuse stimulant medications for various reasons. Historically truck drivers, students, and athletes were most likely to abuse this class of drug for the increased alertness-staying awake to study or a long-haul drive. Recently soldiers have been given stimulants to improve endurance in battle. People needing to stay awake and alert might turn to stimulants to help them do so. Anyone who is also abusing alcohol or other drugs is at risk to abuse ADHD medications. As staying awake and having lots of energy is something that is needed to participate in raves, people who frequent all night dance parties and participate in that culture also are at risk of abusing ADHD medication. In the show “Desperate Housewives” actor Felicity Huffman’s character used her children’s ADHD medication to have more energy to manage her household, and complete housekeeping and parental responsibilities. People who struggle with disordered eating are also at risk of abusing ADHD meds.  The symptoms of ADHD medication addiction are listed below.

  • Cravings for the drug
  • Needing progressively larger doses to feel the effects
  • Wanting to stop using the drug but being unable to
  • Neglecting family, work, or personal obligations to use ADHD medication
  • Spending increasing amounts of time and money to use and recover from the drug
  • Suffering withdrawal symptoms when not using the drug

Treatment for Prescription Drug Addiction

It is critical to begin treatment for addiction to ADHD medications under the watch of medical and behavioral specialists, who will monitor you for symptoms of withdrawal and provide treatment to ease the discomfort of those symptoms should you develop them. Once the drug is out of your system our expert therapists will begin to work with you to address the underlying reasons for your use of ADHD medications. Many people struggle with stimulant drug use, you are not alone. Reach out to us today, and begin your path to sobriety.


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What happens in addiction

Effective addiction treatment programs are tailored to each individual. Because of this, it will be a different experience for everyone. However, it generally involves a combination of detoxification, group and individual therapy, educational presentations, and aftercare planning in order to ensure long-term recovery. Upon arrival at The Detox Center of L.A., you can expect our professionally trained staff to create an individualized treatment plan based on your needs and treatment goals.