Are We Setting Our Young People Up for Addiction to Prescription Stimulants?

Prescription drugs are generally perceived as ‘safe’. Most of us know that some painkillers can be addictive, so you should be careful with these, but if the doctor told you to take it, well, then it’s fine. Isn’t it? But prescription stimulants, which show similar effects in the body as illegal drugs such as amphetamines, have the potential to be just as addictive as the illegal versions. A prescription does not prevent the possibility of prescription drug addiction.

Commonly Prescribed to Children

The most commonly prescribed stimulant in the United Kingdom is methylphenidate, usually marketed under the name Ritalin. This is the most commonly used drug for treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and attention deficit disorder (ADD), and it can be prescribed to children as young as six.

By 2015, the number of prescriptions for Ritalin was more than double that of a decade previously. Some of this increase can be accounted for by the growth in diagnosis of ADHD and ADD as understanding of these issues increases, but there are fears that the drug could be being prescribed too readily, rather than the last resort for treatment as it should be.

Although categorised by behavioural observations, ADHD and ADD are disorders of a neurological origin. The use of stimulants such as Ritalin in their treatment may seem odd when the behavioural traits seen include restlessness, fidgeting and impulsiveness, but Ritalin works by both increasing the firing rate of neurones, and regulating the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. Both effects help those with attention deficit problems to regulate their behaviour in a more appropriate way.

Safe or Not …

At low doses, Ritalin does demonstrate a therapeutic effect for those struggling to cope with ADD or ADHD, but there are concerns over the possibility of damage from long-term use. Moreover, there has been some suggestions that use of the drug does not offer any long-term benefits.

At higher doses, it can create feelings of euphoria and activates the brain’s reward pathways – leading the user to seek that activation again, and ultimately leading to prescription drug addiction. Although the dose prescribed to treat attention deficit disorders is generally not high enough to activate the reward pathway and so should not lead to addiction, the dose required to successfully treat the attention issues varies hugely from patient to patient. What is a therapeutic dose for one patient could well lead to addiction for another. The likelihood of addiction to Ritalin is considered to be similar to the risk of drug addiction to amphetamine.

There are already known problems with sustained use of Ritalin, the foremost of which is that it stunts the growth of children taking it regularly – if a child takes the drug consistently for a year, his or her growth will be reduced by up to three-quarters of an inch. Other side effects can include loss of appetite, nausea, nervousness or anxiety, changes in the heart rate or rhythm and insomnia.

Given that the majority of attention deficit disorder diagnoses are made when children are between the ages of three and seven, perhaps we should be looking at alternatives to potentially addictive drugs for their treatment. Prescribing this drug to a child ‘normalises’ the use of the substance, and blurs the lines between drug use and drug abuse. As children grow older, they are increasingly likely to ‘experiment’ with drugs, and if they have a known stimulant readily available, that experimentation is all too easy. Addiction to Ritalin has been reported amongst young adults who have been prescribed the drug, so why should we expect our younger patients to be at any less of a risk?

Help Dealing with Addiction

Coping with an addiction is difficult, and when that addiction is to something that was supposed to help us, it can be hard to recognise that the addiction is there. If you are reading this because you have concerns that you, or a friend, or family member could be becoming addicted to a prescription stimulant, then we can give you help and advice on what to do next. Please call us today for more information.

Source:  Prescriptions for Ritalin and other ADHD drugs double in a decade (The Guardian)

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