Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

ADHD Overview

        Health | ADHD

ADHD Medications and Treatment
There's lots of controversy over these little white pills.
There's lots of controversy over these little white pills.
Richard Seagraves/Photonica/Getty Images

While several types of health care professionals can diagnose ADHD, only some may be able to adequately treat the patient since some professionals, like social workers, can't prescribe medication. Both counseling and medication are commonly used in treating ADHD. Many psychiatrists specialize in treating the disorder, and some have further expertise in dealing with children or families.

The first task in treating ADHD is confirming the diagnosis, making sure that the behavior isn't caused by some traumatic event or by a different disorder or disease. You also have to make sure it isn't simple misbehavior. Once that's done, a child may begin some combination of therapy and medication. The child's parents sometimes attend counseling with their child or may undergo separate counseling or find support groups. There are many different approaches that fall under the general title of counseling or therapy, including psychotherapy, behavior therapy and instruction in social skills. Therapy can help a child understand his or her condition and the stresses that accompany it, for example, or learn how to control the impulse to be disruptive in class.

Many medications exist for treating ADHD, but Ritalin and Adderall, which has been approved for use in children as young as 3 years old, are among the best-known. Most ADHD drugs are considered stimulants, with Strattera being a major exception. These stimulants are designed to help children with ADHD maintain focus and concentration. In 10 percent of children, stimulants aren't effective [source: NIMH]. Some patients have to try several different medications or adjust dosages in order to find one that works. And of course, these medications have the potential for side effects, such as lack of appetite, anxiety or insomnia. Children who begin taking medication for ADHD often need to continue doing so as teenagers and as adults.

Ritalin remains a controversial drug. Proponents of Ritalin point out that the drug has been used for more than half a century and that a person can't overdose on Ritalin alone. (An overdose is possible if the medication is taken in combination with other drugs or if other health problems are present.) When properly prescribed, children of all ages have benefited from using Ritalin. Ritalin pumps up dopamine levels in the brain, boosting the patient's ability to focus and concentrate.

Still, some debate persists over whether Ritalin is overprescribed. A study published in a 1998 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association that found no evidence of widespread overprescription of the medication [source: PsychCentral]. But other authorities, among them the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), have found worrying trends. A study released in 2007 found that children of divorced parents were two times more likely to be on Ritalin [source: Reuters]. Since 1993, worldwide ADHD prescriptions have increased by 300 percent [source: Reuters]. In August 2008, a prominent Australian doctor estimated that 30 percent of ADHD cases in Australia are misdiagnosed and that even those properly diagnosed often don't need medication [source: The Daily Telegraph].

Like many medications, Ritalin carries a potential for abuse. Because of the drugs' stimulant properties, college students sometimes use Ritalin and Adderall as study aids. Young people have also been known to crush and snort the drugs, mimicking the effects of cocaine.