Diseases & Conditions

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Medications

(Also Called 'Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Medications - Care & Treatment')

What is attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)?

ADHD is a common developmental and behavioral disorder that affects 8 percent to 12 percent of all school-age children. ADHD is characterized by inattention, distractibility, hyperactivity, and impulsivity that are inappropriate for the child's age. Children with ADHD are easily distracted by sights and sounds in their environment, cannot concentrate for long periods of time, are restless and impulsive, or have a tendency to daydream and be slow to complete tasks.

There are sub-types of ADHD, including the most common sub-type, combined ADHD, which includes all the symptoms mentioned above. Inattentive ADHD primarily includes the symptoms of impaired attention and concentration. Individuals with inattentive-type ADHD might often make careless mistakes, appear "daydreamy," fail to complete tasks, are easily distracted, and avoid activities that require sustained mental effort and close concentration.

The diagnosis of ADHD is applied to children and adults after they consistently display some or all of these behaviors over a period of time in at least two settings, such as at home and in school or work.

What causes ADHD?

There is no known cause for ADHD. Research has shown that ADHD has a neurological basis and is not caused by home or school surroundings. ADHD is not caused by poor parenting. Studies suggest that ADHD results from a chemical imbalance or deficiency in certain neurotransmitters (chemicals in the brain that regulate behavior). A 1990 study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health indicates a link between a person's ability to pay continued attention and the level of activity in the brain. This study found that the rate at which the brain uses glucose (its main source of energy) is lower in people with ADHD.

ADHD might be hereditary. If one or both parents have ADHD, their children might show signs of it as well.

Some conditions might mimic ADHD, such as elevated lead levels, trauma, or emotional distress due to loss, such as divorce.

How is ADHD treated?

Assessment methods used to create an individualized treatment plan should include a thorough developmental and medical history, individual interview of the child, and behavior rating scales completed by parents and teachers. Psychoeducational tests often determine if a specific learning disability is also present.

The appropriate treatment plan for ADHD is a multi-modality plan that might include medication, educational assistance, parent guidance, and a behavioral plan.

What medicines are used to treat ADHD?

If mild to moderate symptoms are present, stimulant medicines such as methylphenidate (Ritalin®) or dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine®) are often initially recommended as part of the treatment plan. These drugs stimulate the parts of the brain responsible for organization and management (which have been shown to be less active in individuals with ADHD) to better regulate attention, impulse and motor behavior. Stimulant medicines are effective in 70 percent to 80 percent of patients. In 2003, a new medicine atomoxetine (Strattera®) was introduced that offers a non-stimulant alternative.

What other medicines are used to treat ADHD?

When the stimulants and Strattera are not effective or are not well-tolerated, several other medicines are available to treat ADHD. These medicines might include:

  • Nortriptyline (Pamelor®) or other tricyclic antidepressants
  • Clonidine (Catapres®) or guanfacine (Tenex®)
  • Bupropion (Wellbutrin®)
  • Venlafaxine (Effexor®)

Alternate medicines for ADHD might need to be monitored with EKGs (tests that measure the heart's electrical activity) or blood tests to measure the levels of certain substances in the blood. Medicines are selected by determining:

  • The presence of accompanying conditions (such as depression, anxiety, severe impulsivity)
  • Side effects experienced during stimulant use (such as rebound of ADHD symptoms at the end of a stimulant dose)
  • The presence of motor or vocal tics

Selection of medicine for ADHD should be discussed completely with parents and the older child or adolescent. The pros and cons of medicine choices should be reviewed, including the identification of the most impairing symptoms that are the target of treatment.

Are the sub-types of ADHD treated differently?

Both combined ADHD and inattentive ADHD are treated effectively with stimulants in 70 percent to 80 percent of patients. Stimulants are the most beneficial type of ADHD medicines for assisting the patient's focus. Combined ADHD has the most predictable response to stimulants. Atomoxetine might offer benefits, especially to older inattentive teens.

At times, combinations of medicines are necessary, especially when the patient has more than one diagnosis or severe symptoms. Periodically readjusting medicine doses is necessary as the child gains weight. Inadequate dosing or missed doses might explain many cases of "treatment failure."

Clinical research continues to expand the medicines available for the effective treatment of ADHD.

Myths about ADHD treatment

Media sources frequently exaggerate the controversies over ADHD treatment. Contrary to media coverage, there is not widespread over-prescribing of stimulants for ADHD or abuse of these medicines. A thorough assessment by a physician+ prior to initiating treatment and careful monitoring of any drug treatment plan guards against such concerns.

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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 10/11/2008…#5210