Drug Use Soars Among Teens With Traumatic Brain Injuries
A team of Canadian researchers has uncovered a strong link between substance abuse and traumatic brain injury (TBI) among adolescents, specifically that students in grades 9 through 12 who had suffered such an injury were two to four times more likely to abuse drugs than peers with no history of TBI, according to a new study in the Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation.
For the purposes of this study, TBI was defined as any head injury that led to a loss of consciousness for more than five minutes or led to a period of hospitalization of at least one day. Under the auspices of the organization’s 2011 Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey, 6,383 teens who had suffered such injuries at some point in their lives were interviewed.
All of the young people who participated in this survey were asked about their drug and alcohol use over the last 12 months. In comparison to their peers, teens with a history of serious head injury were:
- 8 times more likely to have used methamphetamine
- 8 times more likely to have misused or abused prescription tranquilizers or sedatives, such as Xanax or Valium
- 8 times more likely to have taken Ecstasy
- 7 times more likely to have misused or abused opioid prescription painkillers (OxyContin, Vicodin, etc.)
- 6 times more likely to have taken hallucinogens
- 5 times more likely to have used cocaine
- 5 times more likely to have consumed LSD
- 1 times more likely to have misused or abused prescription ADHD drugs like Ritalin or Adderall
Overall, this represents eight classes or types of drugs that were used at rates more than double the usual. This is an extraordinary result no matter what the cause-and-effect relationship between TBI and drug use might ultimately turn out to be.
And there is uncertainty on this point, because the researchers were not able to pinpoint how the timing of the head injuries related to the beginning of the drug use, or if drug use got worse once TBIs were suffered. As of now, the correlation between drug consumption and head injuries can only be classified as just that: a correlation. Further research will be required to discover if TBIs are preceding drug use or vice versa.
It may be that youthful drug users are more inclined to behave recklessly in general, which could leave them vulnerable to physical injuries. Or perhaps their drug use contributes directly to unsafe behavior. However, if brain injuries are preceding increased drug consumption, two other possibilities come to mind: either TBIs are having a negative impact on judgment and impulsiveness, or adolescents suffering the pain from such injuries may be using illegal substances to self-medicate.
The Strange Pathways of Substance Abuse
While the participants in this study were all adolescents, it is reasonable to believe the same trends will be found once attention shifts to adults who have suffered traumatic brain injuries. This is a connection that has yet to be explored but will undoubtedly become the subject of further research as word about the Ontario findings spreads.
This discovery typifies how surprising and complex cause-and-effect relationships with respect to drug abuse can be. At first consideration, there is no obvious reason why TBIs should lead to higher levels of drug consumption. But if they do, it is something the medical profession should be aware of and take into consideration when they are working with people who’ve suffered these kinds of injuries.
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