What You Should Know About Hyperactivity

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Hyperactivity is a term that describes a person who moves, talks, fidgets, and interrupts more than is typical. Children who are hyperactive may run, jump, and climb more than their peers. Adults who are hyperactive may pace or fidget a great deal.

Along with excessive movement, people who are hyperactive often behave impulsively. They may also have a short attention span and be easily distracted.

Hyperactivity is usually associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But hyperactivity can also be caused by many other things, including medications or mental or physical illness.

This article will describe the causes of hyperactivity, what it looks like, treatment, and coping.

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Hyperactivity Causes

Hyperactivity is not a disorder in itself. It is a symptom that can be caused by a number of different issues, both in children and in adults. In some cases, hyperactivity is simply excess energy that needs to be channeled more appropriately.

In other cases, hyperactivity can be a sign of a mental or physical disorder:

  • The most common cause of hyperactivity is ADHD. ADHD, in turn, is usually caused by genetic factors, abnormal brain development, or brain injuries occurring before, during, or after birth. There are also many cases of ADHD for which the cause is unknown.
  • People with autism may appear to be hyperactive because of their self-stimulatory (stimming) behaviors which may include rocking or pacing.
  • Brain and central nervous system disorders can lead to hyperactivity.
  • Certain mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia can include hyperactivity as a symptom.
  • Mood disorders such as depression or anxiety can lead to hyperactive behaviors.
  • Environmental issues such as chaotic home life, bullying, etc., can lead to hyperactive behavior.
  • Misuse of pharmaceutical and recreational drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamine, can lead to overstimulation of the thalamus (a part of the brain) with resulting hyperactivity.
  • Some prescribed medications can cause hyperactivity in particular individuals.
  • Some physical illnesses, such as overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism), can lead to hyperactivity.

Children with ADHD Rarely Lose Their Diagnosis as Adults

Children are more often diagnosed with hyperactivity and ADHD than adults. But few people grow out of their symptoms. Only about 20% of children with an ADHD diagnosis outgrow their symptoms.

Hyperactivity Signs and Symptoms

Hyperactivity is simply a description of behavior. Hyperactive behavior usually includes being constantly moving, easily distracted, impulsive, unfocused, and, in some cases either aggressive or unusually assertive.

But these behaviors are often a problem only in certain situations and not in others. For example, high energy and aggression on the football field are assets, while the same behaviors are problems in the classroom.

For children, hyperactive symptoms are generally described as:

  • Fidgeting or squirming
  • Wandering around the classroom when they should be seated
  • Talking too much (either to friends or to the teacher)
  • Difficulty participating in quiet activities (such as circle time and reading)

Many of these so-called symptoms are, in some cases, age-appropriate behaviors or the behaviors of an unusually energetic child. It's important to look carefully at hyperactive behaviors to be sure that they are truly at a level to cause concern for the child—or whether they are more of a problem for someone else.

Hyperactivity is less often noticed in adults, in part because adults have more control over their day-to-day activities and settings. An adult who prefers to move around a lot is unlikely to choose a desk job, and it's hard to spot "hyperactivity" in someone whose job requires constant motion (nursing, for example).

When adults do exhibit hyperactivity, it's often the result of undiagnosed ADHD. Symptoms may look like:

  • Fidgeting
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Inattentiveness
  • Lack of focus
  • Interrupting or blurting

Diagnoses Related to Hyperactivity

Hyperactivity is not a disorder in itself, but it can lead to diagnoses. The most common diagnosis for hyperactive children and adults is ADHD, but other diagnoses can result from symptoms of hyperactivity. Diagnoses resulting from hyperactivity are most likely to include:

  • ADHD
  • Autism
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia
  • Physical disorders such as hyperthyroidism
  • Recreational drug abuse

Hyperactivity Treatment

Treatment for hyperactivity will depend on the cause of the hyperactivity. In some cases, pharmaceuticals can make a positive difference. In other cases, behavioral or cognitive therapies can help.

If Hyperactivity Is Caused by ADHD

ADHD in children is usually treated through a combination of pharmaceutical drugs (usually amphetamines) and behavioral and cognitive therapies.

Drugs that work for children with ADHD usually aren't as effective for adults, so adults may also use drugs and usually work with therapists to build new skills and find workarounds for difficult activities such as time management.

If Hyperactivity Is Caused by Something Other Than ADHD

If hyperactivity is caused by something other than ADHD, it will be necessary to consult a specialist in that particular area of medicine. Some issues, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, are treatable but not curable.

Other issues may be addressed through interventions such as a change in school, family therapy, or talk therapy.

Coping

For most people, hyperactivity is an issue that can be addressed fairly easily through a variety of treatments, therapies, and workarounds. There are national organizations such as CHADD.org which support individuals with ADHD and similar disorders, and there are technological tools available to help with organization, planning, and focus.

Summary

The word hyperactivity is usually used to describe moving, talking, and fidgeting too much. Most people with hyperactivity also have trouble with focus, interrupt a lot, and behave impulsively. People who are hyperactive often have ADHD. Treatments include stimulant drugs, talk therapy, and support for learning how to work with and around hyperactivity.

A Word From Verywell

Hyperactivity is not a disorder in itself, though it can be a symptom of many different disorders and diseases. It's important to remember, however, that different people have different energy levels, learning styles, and personalities.

Some children (and adults) are naturally more energetic than others—and many people are hands-on learners who find it hard to sit still for hours on end in a school or work setting.

Before seeking a diagnosis based on symptoms of hyperactivity, be sure to observe and record where, when, and by whom the symptoms are reported. This information will be important as you investigate treatment options.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is hyperactivity the same as ADHD?

    Hyperactivity is a symptom of ADHD, but it is not the same thing. Hyperactivity can also be a symptom of other mental or physical disorders ranging from thyroid disease to bipolar disorder. Hyperactivity can also be caused by anxiety, stress, and other issues.

  • How do you treat hyperactivity in autism?

    While hyperactivity in ADHD is usually treatable with stimulants and therapy, hyperactivity in autism is not. That's because many of the "hyperactive" behaviors seen in autism are actually self-calming behaviors that help people with autism regulate their response to the world around them.

    It may not be necessary to treat such behaviors at all. But if they become a serious issue they are usually treated through sensory integration therapy and, in some cases, behavioral therapy.







5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. MedlinePlus. Hyperactivity.

  2. National Institute of Mental Health. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in adults: what you need to know.

  3. Jaffee, SR, Handscombe, KB, Haworth, CMA, Davis, OSP, Plomin, R. Chaotic homes and children's disruptive behavior: a longitudinal cross-lagged twin studyPsych Sci. 2012;23(6):643-650. doi:10.1177/0956797611431693

  4. Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD). ADHD changes in adulthood.

  5. National Institute of Mental Health. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in children and teens: what you need to know.

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.