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What Is ADHD?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurobehavioral disorder that is most commonly diagnosed in children but also affects adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 6.1 million children have been diagnosed with ADHD.

Psychiatrist takes notes during family therapy session as two parents express their concerns for their child who is being treated for adhd

People with ADHD will often have difficulty focusing on tasks and activities or paying attention. Some individuals will also feel restless, have difficulty sitting still, or find it hard to control impulsive behaviors. Children with ADHD often find school challenging, and their disruptive behavior can cause difficulties at home. For adults, ADHD can pose similar challenges at work and in personal relationships.

The symptoms of ADHD vary, and the disorder is further broken down into three main types.

 

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Types of ADHD

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) has identified three types of ADHD. Types of ADHD are determined by specific symptoms based on inattentiveness, impulsivity, and a combination of both.

Primarily inattentive type

Someone with inattentive ADHD is unable to focus or maintain sustained attention. This makes it difficult to follow detailed instructions or organize tasks. The person will often get off-task and find it hard to remain persistent. This type was formerly known as attention deficit disorder (ADD).

Primarily hyperactive-impulsive type

People with this type of ADHD are prone to excessive fidgeting, tapping, or talking out of turn at inappropriate times. They typically act impulsively and struggle with self-control. This type is more common in children.

Combined presentation type

In combined presentation symptoms of both inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive types are present. Symptoms might not be in balance, with individuals displaying more symptoms of one type than the other.

ADHD Signs and Symptoms

Symptoms of ADHD vary across types and age groups. For example, hyperactivity is the most common sign of ADHD in preschool aged children. Whether a child or an adult, someone with ADHD will generally display certain symptoms:

  • Inability to focus or concentrate on tasks
  • Fidgeting, squirming, and constant moving
  • Difficulty waiting their turn resulting in interrupting others in conversation
  • Being easily distracted from tasks
  • Regularly forgetting about tasks, chores, or school work

While it’s normal to lose focus or become forgetful, a person with ADHD will display these signs more frequently and to a higher degree than normal.

Risk Factors

Currently, it’s uncertain what causes ADHD. However, researchers believe several risk factors can include:

  • Genetics
  • Low birth weight
  • Brain injuries
  • Cigarette or alcohol use during pregnancy
  • Exposure to certain toxins during pregnancy or childhood

Overall, ADHD is more common in men than in women. Individuals with ADHD also experience higher rates of anxiety, depression, and learning disabilities.

A therapist works with a child to help assess their adhd.

ADD vs ADHD

Attention Deficit Disorder or ADD is a term no longer used by the medical community. The term was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1987. Since then, the symptoms attributed to ADD have been included within the Primarily Inattentive subtype of ADHD.

Co-Occurring Disorders

Around 60% of children diagnosed with ADHD also have at least one other disorder, according to the CDC. Common co-occurring conditions include anxiety, depression, and disruptive behavior disorders. Overall, 52% of children with ADHD experience a behavioral disorder. In addition, 33% of children with ADHD are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and 17% are diagnosed with depression.

Treatment for ADHD

There are several approaches to ADHD treatment, ranging from therapy to medication. Often, a combination of both treatments may be recommended.

ADHD medications are potentially useful for helping individuals control impulses, such as constant fidgeting and improving attention. Meanwhile, therapies such as behavioral therapy attempt to teach individuals ways to better monitor and control their more disruptive behaviors.

ADHD Medications

ADHD medications are often prescribed to both adults and children. Medications help minimize symptoms of ADHD and help individuals maintain attention and improve their ability to focus on school or tasks.

There are two classes of drugs prescribed to treat ADHD: Stimulants and Nonstimulants.

Stimulants

Stimulants are the most commonly prescribed medication for ADHD. They work through increasing brain chemicals, called neurotransmitters. The two neurotransmitters that stimulants target are dopamine and norepinephrine.

Dopamine helps the brain with cognitive control of behavior and motor control. Higher levels of dopamine can improve attention and thinking. Meanwhile, norepinephrine works within the brain and central nervous system to improve memory and attention.

When taken as directed by a doctor, stimulants are generally safe. However, stimulants do have potential side effects, including:

  • Headaches
  • Stomach aches
  • Decreased appetite
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Increased anxiety

It’s important to talk with your doctor about any side effects you or your child are experiencing. Your doctor may change the dosage or try a different medication.

Nonstimulants

There are a number of nonstimulant drugs which are prescribed to treat ADHD. Some drugs, like Strattera, are approved to treat both children and adults. Others, like Intuniv, are approved specifically for treatment of children ages 6 to 17. Some nonstimulants work similarly to stimulants by increasing key neurotransmitters. Others work by controlling heart rate and blood pressure.

When compared to stimulants, nonstimulants are slower to take effect, but have the added benefits of a longer effect than stimulants and are less likely to cause changes in mood or sleeplessness. However, nonstimulant medications still have potential side effects, including:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Upset stomach
  • Decreased appetite and weight loss
  • Dizziness

Your doctor may prescribe a stimulant, nonstimulant, or combination of both. When starting treatment, it can take time for you and your doctor to find the right combination and dosage of medications. Always talk with your doctor about any side effects you’re experiencing.

ADHD Therapy

Alongside medication, therapy is often a treatment option for ADHD. There are various types of therapy used to treat both children and adults. It’s common for therapy to include the patient’s family, especially in the case of children. It’s important for families to understand and assist in managing symptoms and support.

There are several therapy-based approaches to treating ADHD, including:

  • Psychotherapy – Also known as talk therapy, this approach involves the patient talking with a therapist to identify how ADHD affects their daily life and their relationships. Often, patients will work with their therapist in identifying ways to help manage symptoms.
  • Behavioral Therapy – This type of therapy centers on identifying disruptive behaviors and developing the skills to both monitor and manage them.
  • Parenting Skills Training – When treating children, particularly younger ones, therapy may focus on helping parents learn skills to help manage their child’s behavior.

There are many cases where both therapy and medication will be used in combination to treat ADHD. When used together, medication can help decrease more disruptive behaviors while therapy can teach the skills necessary to excel in school, work, or family relationships.

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