Commonly Prescribed Medication for ADHD Poses Addiction, Abuse Risk

Commonly known by brand names Ritalin or Concerta, the drug methylphenidate remains the most typically-used medication for treating ADHD, leading to a global perception that the drug is benign. However, experts warn that it has similar effects as cocaine if taken in large amounts, and the drug remains a controlled substance due to its high potential for addiction, especially among younger adults.

Methylphenidate falls into the drug category of central nervous system stimulants and causes changes to occur in the brain chemicals and nerves that lead to hyperactive behaviors or impulsive behaviors. The drug also causes dopamine levels to increase gradually, and when taken in large dosages, it provides a similar stimulating effect as cocaine.
The drug is listed as a Schedule II controlled substance because of its potential for abuse. Overuse of methylphenidate is more common among college-aged students who attempt to stay awake for long periods of time. Some report that it gives a surge of adrenaline or feelings of being able to “accomplish anything.”

Teens abusing methylphenidate may become agitated, hallucinate or become extremely nervous and emotional. A heightened sense of what is possible for them to accomplish is also noted, along with weight loss and an inability to sleep.

Adolescents who abuse methylphenidate are believed to become tolerant to it over time, and will then seek out the effects of other more powerful stimulants, making the drug a potential starting point for cocaine use or experimenting with methamphetamine.

The use of methylphenidate rose during the 1990s as experts began to more fully understand and diagnose ADHD symptoms. In children, positive effects from methylphenidate toward ADHD include heightened awareness, reduced fatigue, and a better ability to pay attention, although it has not been approved for children less than six years old. In terms of improving school outcomes, little formal evidence exists.
The drug can stunt normal growth in children or lead to weight loss over time. It is available in a tablet form and can be sprinkled into foods, or taken as an elixir; methylphenidate is also available as an inhalant. More recently it has become available as a skin patch.
Taking too much methylphenidate can lead to agitated moods, muscle tremors, sweating, seizures, vomiting or rapid heartbeat. Some people have reported side effects like a sore throat, or skin problems such as blistering or a rash. For some patients, it can also cause very high blood pressure and respiration problems.

Methylphenidate’s capacity for abuse among teens and young adults is a growing concern among health experts, and its long-term effects on children are not yet fully understood. Nearly 20 cases of cardiac arrest had been potentially linked to the drug by 2006, leading the Drug Safety and Risk Management Advisory Committee to urge the FDA to place a warning on the drug. In 2006, the FDA stated that methylphenidate does not require specific warnings about health risks, and that for most children, the drug is not linked to cardiovascular risk.

When taken in proper settings, the drug has been shown to reduce symptoms of ADHD. However, due to its potential for misuse and possibility as a gateway drug, experts suggest parents be aware of the symptoms of methylphenidate abuse and monitor children’s prescriptions carefully.