Medical Uses of Stimulant Drugs for ADHD

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  • 0:01 What Is ADHD?
  • 1:50 Treatment of ADHD
  • 3:40 How Stimulants Affect ADHD
  • 5:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has taught and written various law courses.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is most commonly treated using stimulant drugs. The stimulants don't cure ADHD, but they do treat the symptoms. This lesson explains stimulant treatment for ADHD.

What Is ADHD?

Sam's parents refer to him as 'spirited.' He has a lot of energy! Sam doesn't sit still. He loves to run, climb and roughhouse. Sam is in third grade, and he makes good grades. However, Sam often forgets his homework or complains that he didn't properly hear or understand the instructions. Sam has trouble staying focused on his schoolwork and is frustrated. His parents wonder if anything can be done to help Sam.

After a thorough analysis by his pediatrician, Sam is diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. ADHD is a common childhood brain disorder that can cause difficulty paying attention, difficulty staying focused, difficulty controlling behavior and hyperactivity.

Research shows that ADHD patients' brains mature at a slower rate than their peers. Though ADHD patients' brains mature according to the same process as those without ADHD, the ADHD patients' brains average a three-year delay. In other words, nine-year old Sam might show reasoning, planning and attention skills similar to a typical six-year old.

Some studies show that about 11% of school-aged children have ADHD, but diagnoses are on the rise. Also note that ADHD often persists into adolescence and adulthood; although, it's most typically diagnosed during childhood.

Treatment of ADHD

ADHD is most commonly treated through the use of prescription stimulant medications. Stimulant drugs produce extra brain activity, increase alertness and promote a sense of well-being. The medications are used to manage ADHD symptoms, rather than cure the disorder. Popular ADHD medications include:

  • Adderall
  • Concerta
  • Ritalin
  • Vyvanse

Stimulants can enhance attention span, curb impulsive behavior and reduce hyperactivity. When taken daily, stimulant medications have been shown to improve ADHD symptoms in around 70% of patients. Sam's parents think that sounds promising! However, the doctor explains that results are limited, since most medications wear off within 8 to 12 hours. For this reason, stimulants are often used in combination with behavioral therapy.

It's important to consider that most stimulants are Schedule II drugs. Schedule II drugs are heavily regulated by the federal government. That's because the government classifies these drugs as having a high potential for abuse and potential for severe psychological or physical dependence when not taken as prescribed. Schedule II drug prescriptions may not be refilled, and an original, written prescription is usually required. That means Sam's parents will need to obtain a hard copy of Sam's prescription from the pediatrician each month and take that to the pharmacy in order to receive more ADHD medication.

How Stimulants Affect ADHD

Now let's take a look at how stimulants work to improve ADHD symptoms. It may seem counterintuitive to prescribe stimulants for patients with behavioral difficulties or hyperactivity. However, stimulants work on ADHD patients by increasing certain naturally-occurring brain chemicals. The brain chemicals are known as neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are substances that communicate information throughout the brain, such as information regarding behavior, focus and impulse control.

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