What is Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)?
Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common mental condition that usually causes impulsive actions, hyperactive behavior, or an inability to focus. ADHD occurs in an estimated 8.4 percent of children and 2.5 percent of adults, and is more often diagnosed in boys than girls. Scientists are not sure what causes ADHD, but genetics may be a significant factor.
Whether diagnosed in childhood or adulthood, ADHD can significantly affect relationships, school or work performance, and quality of life.
What are the signs and symptoms of ADHD?
There are three main types of ADHD, defined by their symptoms: inattentive type, hyperactive/impulsive type, or combined type.
With ADHD of the inattentive type, a person frequently demonstrates some of the following symptoms:
Inability to pay attention to details
Makes careless mistakes
Difficulty focusing on tasks or activities, or paying attention when spoken to
Does not complete instructions, homework, or other tasks
Difficulty with organization, such as time management
Avoids tasks that require focus
Loses things frequently
Easily distracted or forgetful
With ADHD of the hyperactive/impulsive type, a person frequently demonstrates symptoms such as:
Inability to sit still or avoid fidgeting
Running around or climbing at inappropriate times or places
Unable to play or do leisure activities quietly
Constantly in motion
Frequently interrupts others in conversation or activities
Difficulty waiting in line or taking turns
A person with a combined type of ADHD may demonstrate symptoms from both the inattentive and hyperactive/impulsive types.
How do I learn if I have ADHD?
Everyone forgets things, gets distracted, or feels restless sometimes. With ADHD, however, symptoms are usually extreme and frequent enough to affect a person’s relationships and quality of life.
If you believe that you have ADHD, you should first make an appointment with your healthcare provider to discuss your concerns. ADHD shares some symptoms with other conditions, such as anxiety, so a medical exam can rule out other problems first.
There is no one specific test available to diagnose ADHD. Health providers usually look at the symptoms and how severe they have been in the last six months. The provider may also get input from others, such as your spouse or coworkers, to identify symptoms.
What if my child shows symptoms of ADHD?
For children under age 18, parents or guardians should make an appointment with a pediatrician or other healthcare provider to discuss an ADHD diagnosis. The provider can help rule out other problems that may look similar to ADHD.
At this appointment, your child’s health provider may conduct or recommend the following:
Screening for other common disorders, such as learning disabilities, trauma, or seizures
Taking a health or behavioral history of the child
Considering input from others, including teachers or other health providers
Referral to a child psychologist or psychiatrist
Some inattentive or impulsive behaviors are normal in growing children. In most cases, ADHD can only be diagnosed if the symptoms appear before age 7 and last for at least six months. The symptoms also must affect quality of life in at least two of the following areas:
On the playground
Within the community
In social settings
A child may not have ADHD if he or she only shows symptoms occasionally, or if schoolwork or relationships do not seem to be impaired by his or her symptoms. This is why it’s important to get input on the child’s behavior from several sources, such as teachers, parents, babysitters, friends, or other family members.
What if an adult loved one shows signs of ADHD?
Symptoms of ADHD may change or look different with age. For example, adult hyperactivity may seem like extreme restlessness or activity levels that others cannot keep up with.
ADHD can be a frustrating disorder for both the person with ADHD and their loved ones. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to support your loved one and get them the help they need.
Gently and privately talk to them about the symptoms that concern you.
Suggest that your loved one seek professional help for their symptoms.
Offer to help your loved one contact a healthcare provider.
Be willing to accompany your loved one to appointments, if appropriate.
Encourage them to practice good self-care, such as healthy eating, sufficient sleep, and physical activity.
Educate yourself about the condition and its symptoms, which can help you better respond to the symptoms.
Avoid speaking about their condition in judgmental tones.
Ask your loved one how you can best help or support them.
What are the treatments for ADHD?
The most common treatments for ADHD are therapy, medication, or a combination of the two.
Therapy may involve either psychotherapy (also called talk therapy), behavioral therapy, or both.
With talk therapy, you can discuss the effects of ADHD and how it can be managed.
Behavioral therapy can help people with ADHD notice and modify their behavior appropriately.
Medications for ADHD can affect brain chemicals and help a person better control their behavior.
The most common medications prescribed for ADHD are central nervous system (CNS) stimulants, such as Ritalin and Adderall. These drugs increase the amounts dopamine and norepinephrine.
If stimulant medications don’t work or have unpleasant side effects, a doctor may prescribe non-stimulant medications, such as antidepressants, that also can increase norepinephrine.
Among adults with ADHD, 90 percent of those who take a commonly prescribed stimulant can see improved functioning.
The Multimodal Treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder study also found that combining intensive medication management and behavioral therapy led to sustained improvements in children.