How ADHD Is Treated

Medication, Therapy, and Lifestyle Changes

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If you or a loved one has recently been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or you're considering scheduling an appointment for a professional screening, you may be pleased to know that effective treatment is available.

ADHD is a common neurodevelopmental condition characterized by core symptoms, including inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity, which make it hard to pay attention and maintain self-control.

Child doing math homework

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While ADHD is often first diagnosed in children, it's not uncommon for adults to learn they've been living with ADHD when symptoms make it difficult to thrive or "keep up" with peers later in life.

Regardless of your age, untreated ADHD can seriously affect your ability to function in multiple areas of life, including school, work, relationships, financial well-being, and overall health.

While there’s no cure for ADHD, treatment options can empower you or your loved one to better manage symptoms and develop helpful coping skills. Keep in mind, however, that treatments may vary by age, and it can take time to figure out the best route forward.

And although medications often are a highly effective treatment for ADHD, experts say a combination of treatments, to include medications, conventional and complementary therapies, and lifestyle changes, tend to work best .  

Prescription Medications 

After you receive an ADHD diagnosis, your healthcare provider will discuss available treatment options, including medication, with you. It’s important to remember that medication won't make ADHD subside entirely or forever, but it can help ease symptoms.

Typically, you'll be advised to start medication at a lower dose and gradually increase it over time while keeping in touch with your doctor about any changes in symptoms or side effects.

Should You Give Your Child ADHD Medication?

For children younger than 6 years old, the American Pediatric Association (APA) recommends parental training in behavior management and classroom interventions as a first-line treatment before trying medication.

For those ages 6 and up, a combination of medication and behavior management training and therapy is recommended. 

There are two types of medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of ADHD: stimulants and non-stimulants. 

Stimulants for ADHD 

Stimulants are the most commonly prescribed medication for the treatment of ADHD. An estimated 70%–80% of children with ADHD have fewer symptoms when they take stimulants, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

It might seem counterintuitive to give stimulants to someone who is hyperactive. But drugs containing central nervous system (CNS) stimulants known as methylphenidate and amphetamine can actually help people living with ADHD to calm down and focus.

This could be due to the fact that stimulants cause increased levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter (chemical messenger in the body) linked to attention, motivation, and movement. 

Prescription stimulant medications for ADHD include: 

  • Adderall, Evekeo, or Dyanavel (mixed salts of amphetamine) 
  • Concerta, Daytrana, Jornay PMTM, Metadate, Methylin, or Ritalin (methylphenidate) 
  • Desoxyn (methamphetamine) 
  • Dexedrine, Dextrostat, or Zenzedi (dextroamphetamine) 
  • Focalin (dexmethylphenidate) 
  • Vyvanse (lisdexamfetamine) 

Stimulants may be short acting (lasting four hours) or long acting (lasting six to eight hours or all day). Sometimes, patients prefer long-acting stimulants because they can last throughout the day. Short-acting stimulants, on the other hand, may require an additional “booster” dose midday. 

Before taking stimulants for ADHD, ask your healthcare provider to discuss the pros and cons, including side effects. While some unwanted side effects diminish over time, others may not. Your doctor may then decide to discontinue your use of the medication or change the dose. 

Common side effects of stimulants for ADHD include: 

  • Loss of appetite 
  • Stomachache 
  • Headache
  • Nervousness, restlessness, or irritability 
  • Trouble sleeping 
  • Reduced spontaneity  

Other possible side effects include: 

  • Slowed growth rate in children 
  • Blurred vision or eyesight changes 
  • Painful, prolonged erections 
  • Increased blood pressure, heart rate, and stroke and heart attack in adults 
  • Sudden death in patients with heart problems or heart defects 
  • New or worsening symptoms of other mental health conditions, such as bipolar disorder

Risk of Stimulant Misuse

Stimulants are controlled substances that can be misused, so make sure to talk to your healthcare provider if you have a history of substance abuse or concerns about potential misuse. Long-acting preparations are less likely to be misused.

Non-Stimulant Drugs for ADHD 

Sometimes, non-stimulant medications are a better choice in ADHD treatment. For example, you may want to consider them when stimulants cause unwanted side effects, they aren’t a good fit for other health reasons, or you’re concerned about potential misuse. 

Non-stimulant medications that may be prescribed for ADHD include: 

 Common side effects of non-stimulant medications include: 

  • Nervousness or irritability 
  • Changes in appetite 
  • Sleep problems 
  • Fatigue 
  • Upset stomach or constipation 
  • Dizziness 
  • Dry mouth 

Other side effects include: 

  • Severe liver injury, in rare cases 
  • Suicidal thoughts 
  • Elevated nervousness, anxiety, and blood pressure if abruptly discontinued  

If you’re experiencing adverse side effects after taking any new medication, don't hesitate to ask for help. Reach out to your healthcare provider as soon as possible.

Sometimes, your healthcare provider may also prescribe stimulants and non-stimulants together. For example, a combination of d-methylphenidate and guanfacine was found to effectively improve behavior and cognitive functioning in patients who didn’t respond well to stimulants alone, according to a 2016 study.

Therapies 

Depending on your age, you may find different types of therapy to be helpful in educating yourself about ADHD, surrounding yourself with support, and adopting new ways of thinking and behaving.

Psychotherapy 

For older children and adults, meeting with a mental health provider such as a therapist or psychiatrist can provide a space to talk about life with ADHD, develop skills to deal with symptoms, and address co-occurring mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety.

Research suggests that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), in particular, can be an effective tool for adults managing ADHD. CBT can help you process negative thought patterns and behaviors in order to change your perspective, make more beneficial decisions over time, and improve your relationships.

Behavior Therapy 

Teachers and parents who are trained in behavior therapy strategies can help children replace disruptive behaviors with positive ones. Tools like goal setting, reward systems, and organizational skills can help reinforce positive behaviors with regular feedback. 

Parenting Skills Training 

Raising a child with ADHD requires a unique skill set with an emphasis on structure, clarity, and consequences—skills most parents can use some help learning. Parenting skills training can arm you with the tools you need to help your child manage their symptoms.

Parenting skills training can teach you how to effectively structure your child's days and use quality time, stress-management techniques, and other tools to alleviate distress and improve your relationship.

Alternative Treatments 

There are many alternative or complementary treatments that have been studied for ADHD. However, none has been proven more effective than conventional therapies, and safety concerns remain for some, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).

Here’s what you need to know about some of the most common alternative therapies for ADHD, according to NCCIH: 

  • Omega-3 fatty acids such as fish oil supplements may confer some benefits in reducing symptoms of ADHD and improving cognition with minimal side effects. Still, they are less effective than stimulants, and results are mixed. More research is needed. 
  • Melatonin supplements may help children with ADHD sleep better, according to a few studies, but the safety or efficacy of long-term melatonin use remains unknown. 
  • Pycnogenol (French maritime pine bark extract) shows promise in reducing hyperactivity and improving attention and concentration, but more research is needed to determine its efficacy and safety. 
  • Ginkgo biloba has been shown in studies to be much less effective than conventional medications for ADHD and may be no better than placebo. The extract may also be linked to increased bleeding risk. 
  • St. John’s wort seems to be no better than placebo in treating ADHD symptoms. It may also interact with medications such as benzodiazepines, antidepressants, and oral contraceptives, among others. 
  • Vitamin and mineral supplements, including proprietary formulations of micronutrients, have not been proven effective in treating ADHD, and megadoses that far exceed daily recommendations can be harmful. 
  • Acupuncture is safe when performed properly, but there is not enough evidence to show whether it could have a beneficial effect on ADHD symptoms.  
  • Meditation and yoga require more research as therapies, but some studies suggest yoga as a form of exercise may help improve core ADHD symptoms.
  • Neurofeedback, a technique used to alter brain wave patterns, seems reasonably safe, but whether it is effective for ADHD remains unclear after just a handful of studies.

Talk to Your Doctor

Before using any complementary treatments for ADHD, ask your healthcare provider about potential benefits, risks, and medication interactions you may need to consider.

Lifestyle 

Making changes in your lifestyle and environment can help you manage symptoms of ADHD for a better quality of life. Eating healthy, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and practicing stress-reduction techniques are great places to start. 

To make positive habits you can stick with, opt for lifestyle changes that make the most sense for your personality and needs. Here are a few strategies that can help children and adults reduce symptoms and live well with ADHD: 

  • Create a routine. Map out morning, afternoon, and evening routines with a planner to ensure you have enough time to complete important tasks each day.  
  • Organize your space. Designate places to keep essentials like your child’s toys and backpack or your keys, handbag or wallet, and work supplies. In general, an organized and uncluttered environment can help reduce symptoms of ADHD, so tidy up regularly to keep yours at bay.
  • Make checklists. Break down complicated, multistep tasks into bite-sized pieces to make them more manageable.
  • Set alarms and use timers. To feel more in control and combat forgetfulness, automate your schedule by setting regular alarms. Similarly, dedicate specific blocks of time to tasks like work or homework to help you focus your attention better. 
  • Track goals and habits with charts. Create a simple chart with sections for each day and habits you want to make to track your progress. To keep motivation high, reward yourself or your child when positive behavior changes, like regular workouts, stick. 
  • Hire an ADHD coach. For teens and adults, connecting with an ADHD coach can help keep you accountable and give you tools to track goals, boost productivity, and more.
  • Join a support group. Connecting with people who understand firsthand what you're going through can give you much-needed emotional support and help you consider what treatment options might work best for you.

A Word From Verywell

Getting an ADHD diagnosis for you or your child can be upsetting or stressful at first, but it may also be a source of relief. Now, you have a path forward.

ADHD treatment can give you a sense of control and make paying attention, tackling tasks, and finding success in your life, career, and relationships easier. It takes time to adjust to medication and put lifestyle changes in place. Therefore, be patient with yourself and your loved ones as you navigate this new territory together.

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