Managing ADHD With Medication
Just about everyone has trouble concentrating or paying attention in class from time to time. But for teens with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), symptoms like being unable to pay attention and follow instructions can cause problems at school and in many other areas of their lives. Several medicines can help to reduce ADHD symptoms.
People with ADHD often act and think a little differently. They may have trouble in school because they get distracted easily. They may feel bored all the time for no simple reason, lose things, say or do whatever is on their mind at the time without thinking, and interrupt when other people are talking.
Scientists have found that certain medicines are helpful in improving ADHD symptoms. These medicines help people with ADHD to concentrate and focus better. Methylphenidate drugs (like Concerta, Ritalin LA, Focalin XR, or Metadate CD) affect chemical signals in the central nervous system. Research suggests that this may help people with ADHD because it increases the level of neurotransmitters in the brain called dopamine and norepinephrine. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that assist in sending messages between nerve cells in the brain. In addition to pills, methylphenidate is also available in a patch, called Daytrana, that can be placed directly on the skin allowing medicine to be absorbed.
Doctors often prescribe other types of medication to help people with ADHD. Amphetamines (such as Adderall, Adderall XR, Vyvanse, Dextrostat, and Dexedrine) treat ADHD in ways similar to methylphenidate medications.
Other types of medications that are prescribed for ADHD work differently. They are not classed as stimulant medications like those mentioned above. These include atomoxetine (Strattera) and certain antidepressants (such as Wellbutrin).
Doctors work closely with their patients who have ADHD to figure out which medicine will best treat a person based on his or her symptoms, circumstances, and whether that person has any other health problems. It's not unusual for a doctor to try a couple of medicines before finding the one that works best.
Researchers are constantly working to develop new medications for ADHD.
Are ADHD Medications Safe?
Most experts agree that ADHD medications are safe and effective when they are used under a psychiatrist's or other doctor's care. And ADHD medications have been shown to help teens with ADHD in all sorts of areas, such as reducing smoking, substance abuse, injuries, and automobile accidents, and helping improve relationships in and out of the home.
But stimulants can cause some serious health problems if they're abused — in other words, when they're taken by someone who doesn't need them or when they're taken at a higher dose or more often than a doctor has recommended.
The side effects of stimulant-type ADHD medications when they're used long term at high (abusive) dosages include increased heart rate and blood pressure, tremors (uncontrolled shaking), changes in mood, confusion, paranoia, hallucinations, delusions (when your mind thinks something is true when it really isn't), and irregular breathing.
Overdosing on ADHD medications can also cause dangerously high blood pressure and irregular heartbeat, seizures, severe twitching or uncontrolled movements, sweating, dry mouth and eyes, and vomiting. These medications can also become addictive when they're abused. As with other controlled prescription medications, there are laws against sharing ADHD medications with other people.
Because ADHD medications have the potential to become addictive if they are abused, there has been some concern that people who use these medications to treat their ADHD might be more likely to abuse other substances such as drugs or alcohol. In fact, research has demonstrated that when people with ADHD are treated appropriately with medications under a doctor's supervision, they are less likely to abuse alcohol and other drugs. (And people who use their ADHD medications appropriately do not become addicted to these medications.)
Generally, medication is just one part of an ADHD treatment plan. Treatment plans commonly include therapy and adjustments in school and classes.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: December 2009
Originally reviewed by: Richard S. Kingsley, MD