According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), doctors often prescribe stimulant medications like amphetamine and methylphenidate to children, adolescents, and adults who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Adderall is an example of an amphetamine, while Concerta is a methylphenidate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that ADHD diagnoses in children have increased over the past decade and beyond, from 7.8 percent in 2003 to 11 percent in 2011.
How Adderall and Concerta Work?
Prescription stimulants work by increasing the brain’s dopamine levels. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that affects attention, movement, and feelings of pleasure. Drugs like Adderall and Concerta stimulate a slow and steady increase of dopamine that is fairly similar to the way the brain produces it. Physicians typically start off patients on a low dose and gradually increase it until a therapeutic effect is achieved and cognitive function has improved.
If individuals take Adderall or Concerta in a dose higher than the doctor prescribes, they can increase dopamine in the brain much more rapidly. This will disrupt normal communication pathways between brain cells, produce euphoria, and ultimately result in addiction with continued abuse.
Like any prescription drug, Adderall and Concerta can have negative side effects, whether they were prescribed or not. Stimulants can increase heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature, while decreasing appetite and the desire to sleep. When people abuse stimulants, it can lead to malnutrition, as well as all the health problems that accompany it.
Continuously abusing stimulants can also lead to hostility and paranoia, and at high doses, they can even cause stroke and cardiovascular complications.
Despite the potentially negative side effects, there is widespread belief that prescription stimulants make people smarter, making these drugs especially popular among high school and college students.
According to the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future study, the rate of amphetamine use has been steadily rising since 2008 among college students. Because drugs like Adderall and Concerta reduce the body’s need for sleep while increasing concentration, college students can pull all-night study sessions without worrying about forgetting the material or feeling sleep deprived; however, it is important to remember that abusing any drug ultimately has negative consequences.
Access to Adderall
According to a report published in the Medicine Abuse Project, just 5.3 percent of college students had a prescription for ADHD medication in 2011 while 31 percent of those surveyed had used Adderall in the prior 12 months. Researchers determined that most students who use prescription stimulants like Adderall and Concerta for nonmedical purposes obtain the drugs from friends who do have a prescription and typically gives the pills away for free. High school students who obtain Adderall and Concerta for nonmedical purposes do so in a similar way, with the majority of them getting it from friends or acquaintances as opposed to doctors.
Most people already know that abusing any type of drug carries with it certain risks and will ultimately have negative consequences. Ironically, some of the repercussions of abusing prescription stimulants like Adderall and Concerta are actually situations that the user was trying to avoid. For example, nonmedical use of prescription stimulants often leads to ongoing abuse and addiction. Ultimately, these behaviors can lead to:
- Skipping classes
- Failing classes, resulting in a lower GPA
- Difficulty concentrating
- Drinking excessively
- Taking other drugs
- Feeling depressed
Taking Adderall or Concerta without a doctor’s supervision can result in adverse health effects, especially if the user is on any other medication that could react negatively with the stimulant. Taking high doses of stimulants can result in heart attack, seizures, and irregular heartbeat. Abusing Adderall or Concerta can also result in legal issues; those who take it for nonmedical purposes are more likely to trade, share, or sell it, which could result in a conviction down the road.
In addition to the negative side effects that some users may experience when taking stimulants like Adderall and Concerta, there are health risks associated with taking either drug, even if it’s for a short period of time. According to a review originally published in HHS Public Access, using stimulants on younger children for any length of time can result in stunted growth.
When it comes to adolescents and young adults, the short-term effects of using Adderall and Concerta for nonmedical reasons include unhealthy weight loss and appetite suppression, irritability, trouble sleeping, restlessness, and potentially dangerous heart problems. Students who need Adderall or Concerta to focus can minimize these risks by only taking it as prescribed under the guidance of their physician, but those who take it for nonmedical purposes are taking a gamble every time they use.
Risks Associated with Long-term Use
People who abuse stimulants by taking larger and larger doses for a significant period of time face all of the same risks associated with short-term use, as well as several risks particular to long-term use. According to a report originally published in Paediatrics & Child Health, long-term use of Adderall and other stimulants can result in life-threatening cardiovascular complications. The New York Times reports that adults might be at the highest risk for heart problems resulting from taking stimulants, but doctors claim the risk is fairly small, especially for children and adolescents.
Other risks of using Adderall and Concerta on a long-term basis include fatigue and lethargy, feelings of depression, intense irritability, and a decreased ability to concentrate.
Ultimately, the longer someone uses Adderall or Concerta, the stronger their dependence on it will grow, and they will eventually need medical intervention in order to quit.
Signs of Stimulant Abuse or Addiction
Parents who are worried about their children abusing stimulants may not be able to monitor them for signs while they’re away at college, but they can check in on their children regularly during breaks, holidays, and over the phone. Common signs of stimulant abuse include:
- Reduced appetite
- Dry mouth
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Difficulty sleeping
- Excessive fatigue
If a student’s dependence has morphed into a full-fledged addiction, it is far more dangerous, but the signs may also be more obvious. Common signs of stimulant addiction include:
- Slowed or difficult speech
- Chest pain
- Rash or hives
- Numbness or weakness in the legs or arms
- Peeling or blistering skin
- Aggressive behavior
If a loved one exhibits any of the symptoms of abuse or addiction, it’s important to reach out and offer support. Ultimately, individuals have to make the decision to commit to treatment of their own volition, but family members can help. Parents who are concerned about their college-age children developing an addiction to stimulants should take care when reaching out, because they don’t want their children to feel like they simply need to hide their addiction better. At the end of the day, addiction is a disease, and getting angry with the person experiencing it will not help.
Individuals cannot control their addiction, but they can make the decision to seek help. When it comes to an addiction to Adderall or Concerta, comprehensive treatment will include medical detox and therapy. Entering a detox program with access to trained healthcare professionals 24/7 is critical since the withdrawal process can be difficult; however, with the right medical intervention, symptoms are entirely manageable. Following medical detox, clients can enter a residential or outpatient treatment program, where they will attend therapy sessions to better understand how they got addicted in the first place and how they can control future cravings. Once a structured treatment program is complete, ongoing aftercare is crucial to sustained recovery, particularly for college students due to the daily temptations and triggers to use that are ever present in college life.
Through all of the stages of treatment, family members should remain positive and supportive. Recovering from an Adderall or Concerta addiction may present challenges, but it is entirely possible with the right help.