Vol. 3, No. 3, 1997 Page 4


In a pilot study, neuropsychiatrist Sydney Walker III and colleagues report evidence that young adult drug abusers are far more likely to have a history of serious, untreated physical complaints during childhood than are young adult non-abusers.

Walker et al. compared 20 drug abusers between the ages of 20 and 35 with 20 drug-free adults matched for age, sex, and social class. "Nineteen of the 20 drug users," the researchers report, "were using drugs to treat physical symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, and fatigue." All reported having the same symptoms as children, and many had been prescribed Ritalin or similar drugs for behavioral symptoms such as hyperactivity, inattention, or impulsiveness. Fifteen of the 20 had serious criminal records, often stemming from crimes linked to their drug abuse.

In contrast, the non-drug-abusing adults reported no history of childhood prescription drug use for behavioral symptoms, and no chronic childhood physical symptoms. Among this group, there was no serious criminal activity.

Walker et al. speculate that a high percentage of drug abusers may be suffering from untreated medical conditions which were masked in childhood by Ritalin or other stimulant drugs. "When they discontinue these drugs," Walker believes, "they then, as teen n n n nagers, turn to other remedies such as street drugs and/or alcohol to relieve their symptoms." In short, Walker argues, "a large percentage of drug abusers appear to be self-medicating undiagnosed physical disorders."

Study co-author Dave Gaerin, a drug counselor, says the findings correlate with his clinical impression that "approximately 85% of adolescent drug abusers we counsel have a significant associated physical complaint."

Noting that a wide range of chronic biological disorders (e.g., petit mal seizures, subclinical diabetes, cardiac problems) can cause both physical symptoms such as headaches and fatigue, and behavioral symptoms such as hyperactivity, attention disorders, or irritability, Walker recommends that physicians take greater effort to "find the etiology of childhood brain dysfunction and provide treatments that directly address the physical disorders that underlie chronic behavioral symptoms."

A separate study, by B. R. Horner and K. E. Scheibe, also indicates that drug abusers may be alleviating symptoms rather than seeking a "high." Of 30 adolescent drug abusers studied, fifty percent exhibited hyperactivity and attention deficits. This fifty y y y percent, the researchers say, "began drug use at an earlier age, had more severe substance abuse, and had a more negative self-image prior to drug use and improved self-image with drug use [than other subjects]. They experienced more negative affective responses related to substance use and more drug craving and attentional difficulties in treatment than control subjects." The researchers say these individuals show evidence of "drug use for self-medication."


"Relationship of childhood behavioral symptoms, prescription stimulant use, and adolescent and young adult drug abuse," Sydney Walker III, Andra Fisher, and Dave Gaerin, unpublished study. Address: Sydney Walker III, So. California Neuropsychiatric Instit t t tute, 6794 La Jolla Blvd., La Jolla, CA 92037.


"Prevalence and implications of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder among adolescents in treatment for substance abuse," B. R. Horner and K. E. Scheibe, Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Vol. 36, No. 1, Janua a a ary 1997, pp. 30-36. Address not listed.

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