Some Basic Facts About Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) Medications

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For decades, stimulant medications have been used to treat the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). For many people, these medicines dramatically reduce their hyperactivity and improve their ability to focus, work, and learn. The medications may also improve physical coordination, such as handwriting and ability in sports.

Recent research by NIMH suggests that these medicines may also help children with an accompanying conduct disorder to control their impulsive, destructive behaviors.

Unfortunately, when people see such immediate improvement, they often think medication is all that's needed. But these medicines don't cure the disorder, they only temporarily control the symptoms. Although the drugs help people pay better attention and complete their work, they can't increase knowledge or improve academic skills. The drugs alone can't help people feel better about themselves or cope with problems.

These require other kinds of treatment and support. For lasting improvement, numerous clinicians recommend that medications should be used along with treatments that aid in these other areas.There are no quick cures. Many experts believe that the most significant, long-lasting gains appear when medication is combined with behavioral therapy, emotional counseling, and practical support. Some studies suggest that the combination of medicine and therapy may be more effective than drugs alone. NIMH is conducting a large study to check this.


Use of Stimulant Drugs


Stimulant drugs, such as Ritalin, Dexedrine, and Aderall when used with medical supervision, are usually considered quite safe. Although they can be addictive to teenagers and adults if misused, these medication are not addictive in children. They seldom make children "high" or jittery. Nor do they sedate the child. Rather, the stimulants help children control their hyperactivity, inattention, and other behaviors.

Different doctors use the medications in slightly different ways. Ritalin and Dexedrine come in short-term tablets that last about 3 hours, as well as longer-term preparations that last through the school day. The short-term dose is often more practical for children who need medication only during the school day or for special situations, like attending church or a prom, or studying for an important exam. The sustained-release dosage frees the child from the inconvenience or embarrassment of going to the office or school nurse every day for a pill.

The doctor can help decide which preparation to use,and whether a child needs to take the medicine during school hours only or in the evenings and on weekends, too.

Nine out of 10 children improve on one of the stimulant drugs. So if one doesn't help, the others should be tried. Usually a medication should be tried for a week to see if it helps. If necessary, however,the doctor will also try adjusting the dosage before switching to a different drug.

Other types of medication may be used if stimulants don't work or if the ADHD occurs with another disorder. Antidepressants and other medications may be used to help control accompanying depression or anxiety. In some cases, antihistamines may be tried. Clonidine, a drug normally used to treat hypertension, may be helpful in people with both ADHD and Tourette's syndrome. Although stimulants tend to be more effective, clonidine may be tried when stimulants don't work or can't be used. Clonidine can be administered either by pill or by skin patch and has different side effects than stimulants.

The doctor works closely with each patient to find the most appropriate medication. Sometimes, a child's ADHD symptoms seem to worsen, leading parents to wonder why. They can be assured that a drug that helps rarely stops working. However, they should work with the doctor to check that the child is getting the right dosage. Parents should also make sure that the child is actually getting the prescribed daily dosage at home or at school--it's easy to forget. They also need to know that new or exaggerated behaviors may also crop up when a child is under stress. The challenges that all children face, like changing schools or entering puberty, may be even more stressful for a child with ADHD.

Some doctors recommend that children be taken off a medication now and then to see if the child still needs it. They recommend temporarily stopping the drug during school breaks and summer vacations, when focused attention and calm behavior are usually not as crucial. These "drug holidays" work well if the child can still participate at camp or other activities without medication.

Children on medications should have regular checkups. Parents should also talk regularly with the child's teachers and doctor about how the child is doing. This is especially important when a medication is first started, re-started, or when the dosage is changed.


The Medication Debate


As useful as these drugs are, Ritalin and the other stimulants have sparked a great deal of controversy. Most doctors feel the potential side effects should be carefully weighed against the benefits before prescribing the drugs. While on these medications, some children may lose weight, have less appetite, and temporarily grow more slowly. Others may have problems falling asleep. Some doctors believe that stimulants may also make the symptoms of Tourette's syndrome worse, although recent research suggests this may not be true. Other doctors say if they carefully watch the child's height, weight, and overall development, the benefits of medication far outweigh the potential side effects. Side effects that do occur can often be handled by reducing the dosage.

It's natural for parents to be concerned about whether taking a medicine is in their child's best interests. Parents need to be clear about the benefits and potential risks of using these drugs. The child's pediatrician or psychiatrist can provide advice and answer questions.

Another debate is whether Ritalin and other stimulant drugs are prescribed unnecessarily for too many children. Remember that many things, including anxiety, depression, allergies, seizures, or problems with the home or school environment can make children seem overactive, impulsive, or inattentive. Critics argue that many children who do not have a true attention disorder are medicated as a way to control their disruptive behaviors.


Medication and Self-Esteem


When a child's schoolwork and behavior improve soon after starting medication, the child, parents, and teachers tend to applaud the drug for causing the sudden change. But these changes are actually the child's own strengths and natural abilities coming out from behind a cloud. Giving credit to the medication can make the child feel incompetent. The medication only makes these changes possible. The child must supply the effort and ability. To help children feel good about themselves, parents and teachers need to praise the child, not the drug.

It's also important to help children and teenagers feel comfortable about a medication they must take every day. They may feel that because they take medicine they are different from their classmates or that there's something seriously wrong with them. CH.A.D.D. (which stands for Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorders), a leading organization for people with attention disorders, suggests several ways that parents and teachers can help children view the medication in a positive way:

-- Compare the pills to eyeglasses, braces, and allergy medications used by other children in their class. Explain that their medicine is simply a tool to help them focus and pay attention.

-- Point out that they're lucky their problem can be helped. Encourage them to identify ways the medicine makes it easier to do things that are important to them, like make friends, succeed at school, and play.

National Institute of Health
National Institute of Mental Health

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NOTE: The information on this page was taken from the NADDA site and reformatted to fit in with other documents on this site.