Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is a mental disorder characterized by impulsivity, increased activity, and difficulty in maintaining attention.
The exact cause of ADHD is unknown, and because of this there is no cure for the disorder. However, ADHD is treatable by behavioral therapy and medication. While cases of ADHD can vary greatly by severity of symptoms, some are severe enough to impair daily functioning, in which case medication can help immensely.
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The medications used to treat ADHD fall under the category of stimulants. Stimulants promote the activity of certain chemicals in the brain. These chemicals stimulate the central nervous system, increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature while inhibiting sleepiness and appetite. Though it may seem counterintuitive to treat hyperactivity with an increase in activity, stimulants activate the “fight or flight response,” the part of the nervous system that prepares us for danger. By doing so, stimulants promote focus.
Two types of stimulants are used to treat ADHD, amphetamines (e.g. Adderall) and methylphenidates (e.g. Ritalin). Both types of medications work in similar ways. Amphetamines act by both promoting the release of a chemical called dopamine and by causing it to act for longer periods of time. Methylphenidates, on the other hand, cause dopamine and another chemical called norepinephrine to act longer than usual, without promoting an extra release of either chemical. Both types of drugs have their own benefits. Amphetamines have a longer lasting effect than methylphenidates, but since methylphenidates act for a shorter amount of time, the medication can be taken at times that minimize problems from the potential side effects. For example, since insomnia can be a side effect of stimulants, taking methylphenidates earlier in the evening can prevent trouble sleeping later. It is additionally worth noting that amphetamines increase heart rate and blood pressure as well, and could therefore have more risks for people with high blood pressure.
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While stimulants can be used for ADHD treatment, they can also be abused as recreational drugs, study aids, and weight loss medications. Stimulants should not be taken without a prescription from a doctor. Additionally, while stimulants can be effective in treatment, other treatment options are available for ADHD, including behavioral therapy and physical exercise. Regardless, a physician should always be consulted for the best course of treatment.
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