Is There a Connection Between PTSD and Stimulant Medication?


By Debbie Gregory.

A new Defense Department study has found that stimulants used to keep service members alert during long stretches of combat may increase the chances of suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD.)

A review of data from 25,971 service members found that those with prescriptions for drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin were five times more likely to have PTSD.

How could this drug increase the likelihood of PTSD? It has to do with the human memory and the chemicals that regulate it. These stimulant drugs, usually used to treat ADD, cause a release of norepinephrine, a chemical that aids memory formation which is also released in our brains during emotional events.

Since PTSD is the inability to forget traumatic events, those who are using stimulant medications during traumatic events could be more likely to experience PTSD. For this study, troops who screened negative for PTSD were followed from 2001 to 2008.

Of the 131 service members who were prescribed stimulants over the course of the study, a total of 20 (15%) also had PTSD. The researchers found that was five times the rate for everybody else. Overall, there were 1,215 cases of PTSD.

The results did not prove that the drugs caused the disorder. In the majority of cases, the data did not tell researchers whether the prescriptions preceded the onset of PTSD.

Other factors might help explain the results, experts not involved in the study said. For example, the researchers did not control for traumatic brain injuries, which are sometimes treated with stimulants to improve cognitive function.

Given the duration of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the length and frequency of deployments when compared with other wars, perhaps such high rates of PTSD are not so surprising. Prolonged exposure to a perilous and uncertain combat environment might make trauma common.

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