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Health Effects of Adderall Abuse

Posted on March 5, 2013 in Prescription Drug Addiction

Adderall is a name-brand prescription medication that combines two separate, related drugs: amphetamine and dextroamphetamine. Together, these drugs help combat the symptoms of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), as well as the symptoms of the sudden or excessive sleepiness disorder called narcolepsy. Both amphetamine and dextroamphetamine produce their treatment benefits by stimulating certain functions in the central nervous system. Unfortunately, these same stimulating effects can also contribute to the eventual onset of amphetamine-related drug dependence or drug addiction. Doctors normally control the risks for these problems by controlling prescribed Adderall dosages. However, people who abuse Adderall significantly increase the chances for dependence and/or addiction, as well as the potential for other serious, harmful health effects.

Adderall Basics

When the amphetamine and dextroamphetamine in Adderall enter the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), they trigger increases in two brain chemicals-dopamine and norepinephrine-that help control communication between billions of nerve cells known as neurons. Dopamine is found in several different areas of the brain, including an area called the limbic system, which produces pleasurable feelings in response to dopamine’s effects. Along with another chemical called epinephrine, norepinephrine helps regulate the body’s stress reactions and trigger the survival-based alert signal commonly known as “fight-or-flight.”

The Potential For Dependence and Addiction

Most of the addictive potential of amphetamines and many other common drugs comes from the manipulation of dopamine levels inside the brain. In the short run, these drugs boost dopamine far above the levels produced by other pleasurable activities such as eating or having sex. When some drug users experience this level of pleasure, they try to recreate it repeatedly by regularly taking more drugs. However, this continued boosting of dopamine will eventually trigger a balancing mechanism in the brain that leads to lower overall dopamine production for any given level of stimulation. In practical terms, this means that the customary dose of the drug will have less and less effect. Dependence and addiction start to enter the picture when a drug user tries to regain the pleasurable effects of the substance in question by increasing his or her customary dose.

Since Adderall is an amphetamine-based drug, its use can potentially lead to dependence and addiction. Doctors actively seek to avoid these problems by limiting the use of the drug to people with an ADHD or narcolepsy diagnosis; prescribing only enough medication to effectively address the symptoms of these conditions; and limiting the maximum amount of Adderall they will prescribe to any given patient. Adderall comes in tablet form and only gets absorbed by the body relatively slowly; this factor also limits the potential for dependence and addiction by reducing peak levels of dopamine.

Adderall abusers circumvent these safeguards whenever they use the drug outside of the context of medical treatment. In some cases, this abuse occurs when a person with a legitimate prescription takes more of the drug than his or her doctor intended. In other cases, it occurs when a person without a prescription uses someone else’s Adderall with or without the prescribed user’s consent. In addition, some Adderall abusers buy the drug from a drug dealer. Abusers can also circumvent common safeguards by crushing Adderall tablets and inhaling, injecting, or smoking the resulting powder. All of these methods of use increase addiction risks by speeding up the rate of dopamine increase inside the brain; they also raise the risks for secondary side effects by speeding up the rate of norepinephrine increase.

Overdose

If an Adderall abuser takes an excessive amount of the drug in a short span of time, the result can be an overdose. Symptoms of this potentially deadly situation include restlessness, hallucinations, a seriously accelerated heartbeat, an irregular heartbeat, involuntary muscle twitches or muscle tremors, seizures, dangerously high body temperature, hallucinations, abnormally rapid breathing, breathing difficulties, mental confusion, dizziness, psychosis and panic, as well as the onset of a coma or cardiac arrest.

Long-Term Side Effects

In addition to dependence and addiction, potential long-term effects of chronic Adderall abuse include the development of mental illness or ongoing behavioral disorders, changes in mood or personality, skin problems, ulcers, abnormal fatigue, ongoing problems with cardiac health, decreases in muscle coordination, vitamin deficiencies and clinical malnutrition. Just like an overdose, chronic Adderall abuse can also end in a coma and/or death. According to the University of Maryland’s Center for Substance Abuse Research, specific mental health problems associated with long-term abuse of Adderall (or any other amphetamine) include erratic and/or violent behavior, schizophrenia-like psychosis and tactile (touch-related), auditory (sound-related), or visual hallucinations.

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