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ADHD: to medicate or not to medicate?

15/07/2021
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Although you can’t cure Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), it is possible to treat the symptoms very effectively and there are a few ways to do this. One of the key decisions when treating ADHD is whether or not to take prescribed medication. If you decide to opt for medication, then there are many choices around which type to choose. Making these decisions can be quite overwhelming. To help you make a more informed choice, we’ve put together some information about how ADHD medication works and the different types that are available.

How does ADHD medication work? 

To really understand how medication for ADHD works, we need to know a bit more about how our brains work. This is the scientific bit; we’ve tried to explain it in a simple way!

In our brains, there are neurons (brain cells) that pass information to each other using chemicals called neurotransmitters. This is how we come to understand the world around us. In an ADHD brain, this process is not always smooth and the neurotransmitters don’t always get it right. When messages between neurons aren’t passed on accurately, it can cause symptoms of ADHD such as inattention and hyperactivity.

ADHD medication reduces ADHD symptoms by helping neurons to pass on the information and makes an individual calmer with better attention and focus.

There are two main types of ADHD medication: stimulants and non-stimulants. They target different types of neurotransmitters and so work slightly differently to do the same job. Here is a more detailed explanation.

Stimulants vs non-stimulants

Stimulant medications have been used to safely treat ADHD for many years. They work for 70-80% of people and help them to focus their thoughts and ignore distractions. They are widely used for children as well as for adults.

Different types of stimulant medication can be short-acting, intermediate and long-acting. They typically last between four and twelve hours depending on the type of stimulant. This affects when and how often people take them. Common stimulants used are methylphenidate and dexamphetamine.

Non-stimulants are mostly used when stimulants either don’t work, are contra-indicated or cause unpleasant side effects. They improve symptoms such as concentration and impulse control. They take a while to start working and you may not notice their effects for a few weeks. A common non-stimulant is atomoxetine.

How do you know if ADHD medication is working?

There are a few signs that will tell you if the treatment is working. They are:

  • Sustained focus
  • Less impulsivity
  • Improved mood
  • Greater attention to detail
  • Better memory
  • Better sleep

In around 80% of cases, ADHD medication is effective. However, it doesn’t always work as people expect, especially at first. It takes time to find the right medication, the right dosage and to work out the best time to take it.

There are other factors to consider too when it comes to ADHD medication. Consuming vitamin C near the time of medication can make stimulant medication ineffective. Caffeine can interfere with ADHD treatment as it is also a stimulant. You may need to adjust your caffeine intake to fit in with medication.

Possible side effects

As with all medications, it’s advisable to read about the specific possible side effects before starting to take them. With ADHD medication, serious problems are rare.

The most common side effects of ADHD medication are loss of appetite and sleep problems. Adjustments to dosage and the times that medication is taken often improve these issues.

Other possible side effects are weight loss, crankiness, tics, fatigue, upset stomach, dry mouth, and nausea. Long-acting medications have a greater effect on loss of appetite and sleep problems.

Side effects are reversible when the medication is stopped.

Getting the dosage right

People generally start on a low dose of medication and gradually increase it until they feel they have reached the correct dosage. This can vary greatly from person to person. Sometimes it’s necessary to try more than one type of ADHD medication until you find the best one for you. Your health care provider will explain this to you. It may take a few medical appointments to get it right.

Stimulant medications are effective within 45-60 minutes. This means an adult can normally determine the optimum dosage within just a few days as long as they carefully monitor the effects. For children, parents and teachers need to monitor the effects on their mood and functioning before changing the dosage. Please ask a medical professional for advice on this.

Medicating children with ADHD

It’s often a difficult decision for parents to decide whether to medicate their ADHD child or not. A child may struggle to explain how the medication makes them feel and they will have to be carefully monitored. On the whole, studies show that most parents find that the benefits outweigh the risks. Children are usually started on a low dosage that is increased over time and only if necessary.

Questions to ask before starting ADHD treatment

As with all types of medication, there are questions that should be asked before embarking on a course of treatment. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Is this medication a stimulant or non-stimulant?
  • How often, at what time and what dosage should be taken?
  • Which side effects are most likely?
  • For which side effects should you cease medication or seek medical help?
  • Can the medication interfere with other issues such as anxiety and depression?
  • When will it be reviewed?

Some general advice is not to start any medication if you do not feel that you are well informed about it. Here are a few more questions you might want to ask. 

In this clip, one of our clients, James Bloodworth, discusses his experience of ADHD diagnosis at the ADHD Centre. He explains how medication has benefitted him, alongside some lifestyle adaptations he was able to make following his diagnosis. 

Sometimes people are reluctant to try ADHD medication, but it can make a huge difference to someone’s life. Please discuss any concerns with a healthcare professional who can help you to make a decision that’s right for you.

At the ADHD Centre, our specialist consultant psychiatrists work with our clients to find the medication that works best for each client. The exact dosage and schedule vary from person to person and it can take a little time to find the optimum combination. It’s important to remember that medication is not a long term cure for ADHD, it merely treats the symptoms. 

To find out more about ADHD assessment, diagnosis and treatment options at the ADHD Centre, contact us on 0800 061 4276  or by email at connect@adhdcentre.co.uk

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