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

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.

Stimulants
  • 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.
Nonstimulants
  • 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.
Diana K. Blythe, MD
Pediatrics

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.

Donna Hill Howes, RN
Family Medicine
Medications that treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) include stimulant and non-stimulant medications. These drugs alter the way your brain chemicals work. As a result, you may find that you can focus better on your work. Taking ADHD drugs may help you concentrate and organize your time better. Problems with hyperactivity may decrease when taking these ADHD medications. If you take stimulant medication for ADHD, you will need to take it on a regular basis.

These drugs don't cure ADHD. Like glasses for your eyes, these medicines only work during use. Once the medicine clears out of your system, the benefits will wear off, too. After 50 years of research, scientists agree that stimulant drugs are very safe and highly effective for ADHD treatment. Non-stimulant drugs are also safe and effective for ADHD. Less commonly used, these are usually taken by those who do cannot take or do not like taking stimulants.
Dr. Michael Roizen, MD
Internal Medicine
Stimulants are commonly used to treat ADHD. However, non-stimulant drugs, antihypertensives, and some types of antidepressants, can also be used.

Stimulants increase dopamine release in your brain. Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that allows you to feel good and pay attention, among other things. Your body needs a slow and steady release of dopamine throughout the day so that you can continuously concentrate.

Non-stimulant ADHD medications are similar to stimulants, but many affect a different brain chemical, norepinephrine. Norepinephrine is actually derived from dopamine. So you can think of dopamine as the 100% whole grain flour and water and norepinepherine as the bread (100% whole wheat, of course). Some of these medications work directly by increasing the amount of norepinephrine in the part of your brain that controls attention and behavior or indirectly by increasing the number of norepinephrine receptors so that more of its message can be received.

Regardless, the end result is improved concentration and decreased hyperactivity, which means better functioning.

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).

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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.