How do medications treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)?

Dr. Jeanne Morrison, PhD
Family Practitioner

Stimulant medications and a non-stimulant option are currently available for the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The medications significantly improve symptoms of the condition. The medications come in several forms, including pills, powder, and patch, and may have time-release formulations. The exact reason that these medications are effective is not well understood, but the medications are thought to produce a better balance of certain brain chemicals (neurotransmitters).

Diana K. Blythe, MD

Medications treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in different ways depending on which symptoms of ADHD are most bothersome to the patient. Stimulant medications are usually the first choice and have the most benefits, but can also have the most side effects. Non-stimulant medications have less side effects, but usually are less effective in their control of the ADHD symptoms. Some anti-depressants can also help ADHD, as well as some blood pressure medications. Which symptoms of ADHD are most bothersome to the patient will help determine possible medications.

Two main categories of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) medication are available -- stimulant and nonstimulant. You should discuss the risks and benefits of each of these treatment options for ADHD with your doctor.

  • Psychostimulants: These medications -- which include methylphenidate, dexmethylphenidate, and amphetamines -- are the most common kind of ADHD medication. They help ADHD sufferers feel calm by increasing levels of dopamine in the brain. These medicines can also improve concentration and focus and decrease impulsivity. Stimulants are available in both short- and long-acting forms.
  • Norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors: This type of medication works by increasing brain levels of norepinephrine, a chemical that's in short supply in people who have ADHD. The increase in norepinephrine improves attention span and reduces impulsivity and hyperactivity.
  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors: These medications, which include tricyclic and other antidepressants, alter brain levels of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. The result is less restlessness and agitation and fewer sleep problems.
  • Antihypertensives: Although they were not designed specifically to treat ADHD, certain blood pressure medications may improve cognitive function, decrease impulsivity, and help control other undesired behaviors in people who have ADHD -- possibly by increasing brain levels of norepinephrine.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.