ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is a behavioral disorder most often diagnosed in children. It is chronic and persists into adulthood, although the symptoms often decrease with age. Symptoms of the disorder include a lack of focus, difficulty concentrating, excessive daydreaming, getting distracted easily, talking excessively and frequent interruption. Along with the symptoms, many children with ADHD have trouble socializing with peers and often struggle to do well in school.
Nearly 11 percent of all school-aged children are now diagnosed with ADHD. This percentage has been rising by three to six points every year for several years, and some experts point to a problem of over-diagnosis. What troubles these experts, as well as parents, are the medications that go along with the diagnosis. Some studies have shown that children who take ADHD medications are at a greater risk for becoming addicted to any substance later in life. That idea is now under scrutiny, as a more careful look at the research turns it on its head.
ADHD and Medication
Because the symptoms of ADHD can lead to significant negative effects in the life of a child, many doctors recommend medication to reduce them. These medicines are in a class of drugs called stimulants. They have the effect of balancing the brain chemicals in children with ADHD, which helps them focus and concentrate and reduce their tendency to get distracted by the things going on around them.
The stimulant medications used for ADHD, including Ritalin, Adderall, Concerta and others, are also addictive substances in themselves. Some people abuse them to get a high and teens even use them as so-called “study drugs.” They help these students stay awake and focus for more effective studying. This, however, constitutes abuse of the medication and can lead to problems.
There are several controversies surrounding both ADHD and the medications used to treat teens and children with the disorder. The first is simply the diagnosis of ADHD. Because diagnoses have increased so significantly over the last decade, many believe that some kids are being misdiagnosed. Experts do believe that there have been misdiagnoses, especially when they are made by pediatricians or family doctors. The best way to get the most accurate diagnosis is to see a specialist for a complete evaluation.
With the rise in diagnoses for ADHD has come a rise in the use of stimulant medications. There has been a backlash, with some experts and parents decrying the over-medicating of children for what may be normal behavioral issues. The controversy is especially strong when it refers to the youngest children. The brains of kids are still developing and no one knows for sure the long-term effects of taking stimulants during this crucial developmental period.
In fact, some studies have linked stimulant use in children and teens to later substance abuse and addiction. The studies have not been without their own controversies, though. Some show that there is a connection to addiction, while others do not. Some studies are criticized for being too small or having inconclusive results.
More recently, a new review of several different such studies has come up with new answers to the question of ADHD medication and future addiction. The review was published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry and included a thorough review of 15 studies that included over 2,500 participants. The result is that no connection between stimulant use and later substance abuse could be found. Being medically treated for ADHD seems to neither increase, nor decrease the risk of addiction.
What researchers knew for certain was that simply having ADHD does increase the risk of later substance abuse, but the question regarding medication was still up in the air and heavily debated. Although the developing brain of a child does seem to be particularly vulnerable to any negative effects of medication, there are also arguments that treating ADHD could actually decrease addiction risk. If treatment with medication is successful at reducing the symptoms of ADHD, it can reduce the social and academic struggles that ADHD children often have. This effect alone may help prevent a child from abusing substances later.
While there are arguments for and against medicating certain children with stimulants, the most current information gathered from research seems to argue for it. Right now, no one can conclusively prove a link between the medication and addiction. Of course, the research will carry on and will likely answer questions, as well as inspire new ones.