Overheard On Campus: I take prescription medication for my ADHD. Should I be worried about becoming addicted to it?

Contributed by Dr. Chris S. Hayes, M.D., & Brooke Vanevenhoven, R.N., M.S.N., A.P.N.P.
Introduction by Tyler Achilles, B.A.

I would assume if you take your medications as prescribed by your doctor that they would do your body good, but I’m not a doctor and you should never assume. If I had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), then I would probably be worried about becoming addicted to my medication, too. I keep hearing more and more stories about people getting addicted to their prescriptions. My guess, however, is that the people who end up in rehab are not taking their medications as prescribed and are misusing them, which I’m sure you’re not. Luckily, one of our experts IS a doctor and can help with this question.

Teenage girl (13-15) reaching into medicine cabinet, rear viewDr. Chris S. Hayes, a physician at University of Louisiana at Lafayette, says …

Although many medications used for the treatment of ADHD are stimulants which can be and sometimes are abused, if you have been correctly diagnosed your risk of addiction is minimal. Because persons with ADHD have brains that are wired differently than the rest of the population, for most of them stimulants act more as calming and focusing agents than as “uppers.” While people without ADHD are more likely to feel a rush of energy and euphoria when they take stimulants, prompting them to want to take them again to feel the same rush, people with ADHD often describe their response to stimulants as much more subtle. They can get a lot more done and their focus improves, but they usually don’t get the rush. In fact, many of them become sleepy while on meds if they’re not doing anything.

Since stimulants do help people focus on studying even if they don’t have ADHD, those who take stimulants who don’t have ADHD are at much higher risk for abuse and addiction, it’s important for adults who can’t focus to get a complete psychological evaluation. Stress, anxiety, and depression are only a few of the things that can impair a person’s ability to focus. If it’s not ADHD, stimulants might seem to help at first, but they’re risky and don’t get to the root of the problem. If, on the other hand, the problem really is ADHD, stimulants (and improved organizational skills) are sometimes just what the doctor ordered.

Brooke Vanevenhoven, a nurse practitioner, says …

There are several medications available to treat ADHD. If you are concerned about addiction, you are probably referring to the stimulants. Most commonly prescribed are amphetamine salts and methylphenidate. These medications are classified as controlled substances. When used under the direction of a qualified provider and taken according to the directions, the risk for addiction is fairly low. The problem with these medications is that many people, especially college students, have been using them without a prescription or differently than the prescription directions in an effort to stay up all night studying or to achieve a “high.” Even when used appropriately, stimulant medications have a risk of causing anxiety, insomnia, and heart palpitations. Less frequently, they can even lead to cardiac problems.

If your provider thinks you would benefit from a stimulant prescription, it is very important to observe yourself for side effects including heart palpitations or racing heart rate. Do not share your medication with friends or family, and use it only according to the doctor’s orders. Never take more than the prescription indicates, and if you choose to stop the medication, talk it over with your provider first. If you remain concerned about use of stimulants to treat your ADHD, there are other options that your provider can choose. Additionally, it might help to see a counselor who can help you identify non-medical interventions for coping with the symptoms of ADHD.

Bottom line: If you’ve been correctly diagnosed with ADHD, then you have nothing to worry about. If you’re using the medications without a prescription, then there’s a risk of becoming addicted. Write a comment below or click here for more Overheard On Campus posts.

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