Are Addiction and ADHD Connected?

Discover How This Medical Condition Can Increase the Risk of a Substance Use Disorder

Is Addiction and ADHD Connected?

Discover How This Medical Condition Can Increase the Risk of a Substance Use Disorder

Modern research has connected attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) with increased risks for substance abuse disorder. According to the American Journal of Managed Care, an estimated 23 percent of all adults who suffer from substance abuse disorder also have ADHD.1 An estimated 50 percent of all young people in substance abuse treatment also have ADHD.

These numbers are much larger than the incidence of people with ADHD worldwide – an estimated 6 to 9 percent of all children in the United States have ADHD.2 Of these children, one-half will also have the condition as adults. As adults, those with ADHD may struggle in a world that doesn’t understand why they can’t complete tasks, sit and listen to a presentation, or remember small details from a list of tasks to do for a partner. Sometimes, a person may turn to substance abuse as a means to self-medicate their problems and try to improve their ADHD symptoms when in reality, they are likely making them worse.

Modern research has connected attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) with increased risks for substance abuse disorder. According to the American Journal of Managed Care, an estimated 23 percent of all adults who suffer from substance abuse disorder also have ADHD.1 An estimated 50 percent of all young people in substance abuse treatment also have ADHD.

These numbers are much larger than the incidence of people with ADHD worldwide – an estimated 6 to 9 percent of all children in the United States have ADHD.2 Of these children, one-half will also have the condition as adults. As adults, those with ADHD may struggle in a world that doesn’t understand why they can’t complete tasks, sit and listen to a presentation, or remember small details from a list of tasks to do for a partner. Sometimes, a person may turn to substance abuse as a means to self-medicate their problems and try to improve their ADHD symptoms when in reality, they are likely making them worse.

What Is ADHD?

And How Does It Affect Adults?

ADHD is a medical condition where a person has changes in their brain that affect their ability to concentrate and control their actions.3

Although people often associate ADHD with children, adults are affected too. Typically, an adult will have symptoms that fall in one or more of the following categories: inattention, hyperactive, or impulsive. As a person progresses in their condition and gets older, they may have fewer hyperactivity symptoms, yet still experience difficulty concentrating and act impulsively.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), an estimated 60 percent of children in the United States with ADHD will also have the condition as an adult. This number represents about 8 million Americans who live with ADHD as an adult.3 Unfortunately, many adults with ADHD don’t know they have it. According to the ADAA, an estimated 80 percent of adults with ADHD are undiagnosed.

Doctors associate the following symptoms with ADHD in adulthood:

  • Difficulty organizing tasks or objects
  • Difficulty listening to and following instructions
  • Problems remembering details
  • Problems finishing things they started

Adults with ADHD can suffer from other mental health disorders. One they commonly experience is anxiety. The ADAA reports an estimated one-half of adults with ADHD also suffer from anxiety. However, a person may also struggle with other mental health disorders, such as bipolar disorder, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

How Do Doctors Treat ADHD?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved several medications to treat ADHD. Most of these medications are central nervous stimulants. Examples include Concerta, Adderall, and Ritalin. Treatments for ADHD can be difficult for some people, however, especially those who suffer from addiction. This is because those who have ADHD and anxiety may find that stimulants can make a person’s anxiety worse.3

Fortunately, there are many categories of ADHD treatment medications. A doctor may have to adjust dosage and medications until symptoms improve.

How Do Doctors Diagnose ADHD in Adults?

Doctors don’t have a definitive test to diagnose ADHD in adults.3 They can’t use a blood test or imaging study to say that a person has ADHD or doesn’t. Instead, a doctor must conduct several tests to decide if a person likely has the condition. A doctor will ask questions about a person’s medical history and symptoms they may be experiencing.

Examples of questions a doctor may ask an adult with ADHD include:

  • How long have you experienced these symptoms? Do you remember experiencing these as a child?
  • Have family members or loved ones told you that you have difficulty maintaining attention?
  • Do your symptoms affect your relationships, work, or home?
  • Do you have problems maintaining your mood or often find that you can’t control your temper?

Doctors may also use diagnostic tools, which are different series of questions they can ask to determine the likelihood a person may have ADHD.

Addiction And ADHD

Several research studies have linked having ADHD with increased risks for substance abuse addiction. According to the American Journal of Managed Care, young people with ADHD are twice as likely to develop a substance abuse problem.1 They’re also three times more likely to smoke cigarettes than a person who doesn’t have ADHD.

Doctors believe the reasons why those with ADHD suffer from substance abuse at greater rates may have several potential explanations. For example, adults with ADHD tend to be more impulsive than those who do not.2 Also, both ADHD and alcoholism have a genetic component. People who have these conditions are more likely to have children that also have them. Researchers have also identified some common genes between those who have ADHD and alcoholism.

What Are the Treatments for
Co-occurring ADHD and Addiction?

Early intervention for ADHD treatment has proven an important component in reducing the incidence of addiction. According to the American Journal of Managed Care, children who receive treatment for ADHD before age 15 are 60 percent less likely to suffer from substance abuse addiction than a person who does not.1 Another study listed in the journal found the earlier a child begins to take stimulants when they have ADHD, the less likely they are to have substance abuse problems and abuse certain drugs, such as marijuana.

Those with ADHD are also more likely to abuse alcohol than those who do not. According to WebMD, an estimated one-fourth of adults receiving treatment for substance abuse also have ADHD.2 Children with ADHD also on average use alcohol at an earlier age than those who don’t have ADHD.

Many parents voice concerns in putting their child on medications to treat their ADHD as a young person. However, research has revealed the earlier a person receives treatment for their ADHD, they will be less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol later in life.4

Treating ADHD in Adulthood

Adults who were untreated for their ADHD can’t turn back the clock. However, there are methods that an adult can use to treat their ADHD that may help them reduce the likelihood they’ll turn to drugs or alcohol. These include

It’s important to remember that ADHD can cause neurotransmitter imbalances that medications may correct. Doctors may initially prescribe non-stimulant options for treating those with ADHD who also suffer from substance abuse as a means to reduce the risks for anxiety that could lead to relapse.4 Doctors also may be inclined to prescribe slow-release medications, such as Concerta or Daytrana, which is available via skin patch, to reduce the risks for abuse than when compared to faster-acting medications.

Physical activity can stimulate the brain, relieve stress,

and reduce the risks for boredom that can be harmful to those with ADHD.

Therapy can help a person identify areas of their life ADHD affects they may not have personally recognized. A therapist can also make recommendations regarding ways to adjust a person’s behavior when they identify decisions they’re making are due to impulsivity or boredom.

Unfortunately, many relapses in ADHD patients happen in the evening hours when they may have difficulty quieting their mind. Making efforts to get enough sleep and eat an overall healthy diet can help manage ADHD.

Some medical experts will recommend a person first seek treatment for their substance abuse disorder before fully treating their ADHD. Typically, sobriety should be pursued for at least six weeks or more before a doctor will recommend starting treatments, however treatments may be individualized based upon the treatment plan.

Doctors also know that relapse is a significant risk for a person with ADHD struggling with addiction. People with ADHD may also have difficulty feeling frustrated with a situation. Therefore, if they have a day where they feel frustrated in their sobriety, they may be at greater risk for relapse.

Finding Help for Addiction And ADHD

Those with ADHD are at greater risk for substance abuse. Unfortunately, many adults with ADHD aren’t aware their symptoms are the result of a treatable medical condition and may instead choose to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. If a person has often had friends and family members tell them they have difficulty with concentration and impulsivity, ADHD could be the underlying condition.

It’s important when a person does struggle with ADHD and substance abuse that they tell their doctor. Their doctor may wish to prescribe non-stimulant medications that are less likely to induce anxiety than when compared to stimulant medications. Doctors can also recommend lifestyle changes, therapy, and 12-step groups that can help a person receive the support they need, both for their ADHD and also for their substance abuse.


Resources

  1. https://www.ajmc.com/conferences/psych-congress-2017/preventing-substance-abuse-in-adhd-takes-early-treatment-harvard-expert-says
  2. https://www.webmd.com/add-adhd/adhd-and-substance-abuse-is-there-a-link#1
  3. https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/related-illnesses/other-related-conditions/adult-adhd
  4. https://www.additudemag.com/the-truth-about-adhd-and-addiction/