Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a developmental disorder characterized by distractibility,
ADHD, also known as hyperkinetic disorder (HKD) outside the United States, is estimated to affect 7% of children ages six to 11, or about 1.6 million children in the United States. It also affects about 4% of adults. The disorder affects boys more often than girls. Although difficult to assess in infancy and toddlerhood, signs of ADHD may begin to appear as early as age two or three, but the symptom picture changes as adolescence approaches. Many symptoms, particularly hyperactivity, diminish in early adulthood. However, impulsivity and inattention problems remain with up to 50% of ADHD individuals throughout their adult life.
Children with ADHD have short attention spans and are easily bored and/or frustrated with tasks. Although they may be quite intelligent, their lack of focus frequently results in poor grades and difficulties in school. ADHD children act impulsively, taking action first and thinking later. They are constantly moving, running, climbing, squirming, and fidgeting, but often have trouble with gross and fine motor skills. As a result, they may be physically clumsy and awkward. Their clumsiness may extend to the social arena, where they are sometimes shunned due to their impulsive and intrusive behavior. Some critics argue that ADHD is a condition created and diagnosed in the Western world, particular to the environment of highly developed countries, since it is not diagnosed in other cultures. These critics of the ADHD diagnosis feel that medicating a child does not address the true underlying problem. They also note that there may not be a problem at all because children are naturally active and impulsive.
Causes & symptoms
The causes of ADHD are not known. However, it appears that heredity plays a major role in the development of ADHD. Children with an ADHD parent or sibling are more likely to develop the disorder. Before birth, ADHD children may have been exposed to poor maternal nutrition, viral infections, or maternal substance abuse. In early childhood, exposure to lead or other toxins can cause ADHD-like symptoms. Traumatic brain injury or neurological disorders also may trigger ADHD symptoms. Although the exact cause of ADHD is not known, an imbalance of certain neurotransmitters (the chemicals in the brain that send messages between nerve cells) is believed to be the mechanism behind ADHD symptoms.
A widely publicized study conducted by Ben Fein-gold in the early 1970s suggested that allergies to certain foods and food additives caused the characteristic hyperactivity of ADHD children. Although some children may have adverse reactions to certain foods that can affect their behavior (for example, a rash might temporarily cause a child to be distracted from other tasks), carefully controlled follow-up studies have uncovered no link between food allergies and ADHD. Another popularly held misconception about food and ADHD is that eating sugar causes hyperactive behavior. Again, studies have shown no link between sugar intake and ADHD. It is important to note, however, that a nutritionally balanced diet is important for normal development in all children.
People with ADHD suffer from a variety of symptoms. These symptoms include such things as distraction, not paying attention, inconsistency, forgetfulness of even simple tasks, fidgeting, verbal impulsivity, and so on. It is interesting to note that everyone suffers from these symptoms at times, but an individual with ADHD will have more of these symptoms more of the time.
Some doctors indicated immature symmetric tonic neck reflex (STNR) as a possible cause of certain symptoms. Other studies in 1993 and 1994 showed a link between the disorder and diet, dyes, and preservatives. In another study in 1996, ADHD was linked to maternal smoking during pregnancy.
Psychologists and other mental health professionals typically use the criteria listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) as a guideline for determining the presence of ADHD. For a diagnosis of ADHD, DSM-IV requires the presence of at least six of the following symptoms of inattention, or six or more symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity combined.
- fails to pay close attention to detail or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork or other activities
- has difficulty sustaining attention in tasks or activities
- does not appear to listen when spoken to
- does not follow through on instructions and does not finish tasks
- has difficulty organizing tasks and activities
- avoids or dislikes tasks that require sustained mental effort (like homework)
- is easily distracted
- is forgetful in daily activities
- fidgets with hands or feet or squirms in seat
- does not remain seated when expected to
- runs or climbs excessively when inappropriate (in adolescents and adults, feelings of restlessness)
- has difficulty playing quietly
- is constantly on the move
- talks excessively
- blurts out answers before the question has been completed
- has difficulty waiting for his or her turn
- interrupts and/or intrudes on others
DSM-IV also requires that some symptoms develop before age seven, and that they significantly impair functioning in two or more settings (e.g., home and school) for at least six months. Children who meet the symptom criteria for inattention, but not for hyperactivity/impulsivity are diagnosed with Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, predominantly inattentive type, commonly called ADD. (Young girls with ADHD may not be diagnosed because they have mainly this subtype of the disorder.)
The first step in determining if a child has ADHD is to consult with a pediatrician, a doctor who treats children. The pediatrician can make an initial evaluation of the child's developmental maturity compared to other children in his or her age group. The doctor also should perform a comprehensive physical examination to rule out any organic causes of ADHD symptoms, such as an overactive thyroid or vision or hearing problems.
If no organic problem can be found, a psychologist, psychiatrist, neurologist, neuropsychologist, or learning specialist typically is consulted to perform a comprehensive ADHD assessment. A complete medical, family, social, psychiatric, and educational history is compiled from existing medical and school records and from interviews with parents and teachers. Interviews also may be conducted with the child, depending on his or her age. Along with these interviews, several clinical inventories also may be used, such as the Conners Rating Scales (Teacher's Questionnaire and Parent's Questionnaire), Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL), and the Achenbach Child Behavior Rating Scales. These inventories provide valuable information on the child's behavior in different settings and situations. In addition, the Wender Utah Rating Scale has been adapted for use in diagnosing ADHD in adults.
It is important to note that mental disorders such as depression and anxiety disorder can cause symptoms similar to ADHD. A complete and comprehensive psychiatric assessment is critical to differentiate ADHD from other possible mood and behavioral disorders. Bipolar disorder, for example, may be misdiagnosed as ADHD.
Public schools are required by federal law to offer free ADHD testing upon request. A pediatrician also can provide a referral to a psychologist or pediatric specialist for ADHD assessment. Parents should check with their insurance plans to see if these services are covered.
A 2003 survey showed that approximately 54% of parents reported using complementary or alternative medicine treatments for their children in the previous year. Some parents reported turning to these therapies because doctors don't always agree on the ADHD diagnosis and cannot adequately explain how allopathic drug treatments calm people and improve mental focus. Behavior modification therapy uses a reward system to reinforce good behavior as well as task completion and can be used both in the classroom and at home. A tangible reward such as a sticker may be given to the child every time he completes a task or behaves in an acceptable manner. A chart system may be used to display the stickers and visually illustrate the child's progress. When a certain number of stickers are collected, the child may trade them in for a bigger reward such as a trip to the zoo or a day at the beach. The reward system stays in place until the good behavior becomes ingrained.
A variation of this technique, cognitive-behavioral therapy, works to decrease impulsive behavior by getting the child to recognize the connection between thoughts and behavior, and to change behavior by changing negative thinking patterns.
Individual psychotherapy can help ADHD children build self-esteem, give them a place to discuss their worries and anxieties, and help them gain insight into their behavior and feelings. Family therapy also may be beneficial in helping family members develop coping skills and work through feelings of guilt or anger they may be experiencing.
ADHD children perform better within a familiar, consistent, and structured routine with positive reinforcements for good behavior and real consequences for bad. Family, friends, and caretakers should be educated on the special needs and behaviors of the ADHD child. Communication between parents and teachers is especially critical to ensuring an ADHD child has an appropriate learning environment.
A number of alternative treatments exist for ADHD. Although there is a lack of controlled studies to prove their efficacy, proponents report that they are successful in controlling symptoms in some ADHD patients. Some of the more popular alternative treatments are listed.
- Electroencephalograph (EEG) biofeedback. By measuring brain wave activity and teaching the ADHD patient which type of brain wave is associated with attention, EEG biofeedback attempts to train patients to generate the desired brain wave activity.
- Dietary therapy. Based in part on the Feingold food allergy diet, dietary therapy focuses on a nutritional plan that is high in protein and complex carbohydrates and free of white sugar and salicylate-containing foods such as strawberries, tomatoes, and grapes.
- Herbal therapy. Herbal therapy uses a variety of natural remedies to address the symptoms of ADHD. Ginkgo (Gingko biloba) is used for memory and mental sharpness and chamomile (Matricaria recutita) extract is used for calming. The safety of herbal remedies has not been demonstrated in controlled studies. For example, it is known that gingko may affect blood coagulation, but controlled studies have not yet evaluated the risk of the effect.
- Vitamin and mineral supplements. Some vitamin and mineral supplements that are thought to be effective by some alternative practitioners include calcium, zinc, magnesium, iron, inositol, trace minerals, blue-green algae. Also recommended are the combined amino acids GABA, glycine, taurine, L-glutamine, L-phenylalanine, and L-tyrosine. In 2003, a study reported that a combination of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids supplements may help with cognitive and behavioral symptoms of ADHD.
- Homeopathic medicine. This is probably the most effective alternative therapy for ADD and ADHD because it treats the whole person at a core level. Constitutional homeopathic care is most appropriate and requires consulting with a well-trained homeopath who has experience working with ADD and ADHD individuals.
- Auricular acupuncture. A small study in 1997 indicated that this type of acupuncture therapy might be effective in some children.
Psychosocial therapy, usually combined with medications, is the treatment approach of choice to alleviate ADHD symptoms. Psychostimulants, such as dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine), pemoline (Cylert), and methylphenidate (Ritalin) commonly are prescribed to control hyperactive and impulsive behavior and increase attention span. They work by stimulating the production of certain neurotransmitters in the brain. Possible side effects of stimulants include nervous tics, irregular heartbeat, loss of appetite, and insomnia. However, the medications usually are well-tolerated and safe in most cases. But according to Carolyn Chambers Clark, R.N., Ed.D., 25% of the children with ADHD do not respond to stimulant drugs.
In children who don't respond well to stimulant therapy, tricyclic antidepressants such as desipramine (Norpramin, Pertofane) and amitriptyline (Elavil) are frequently recommended. Reported side effects of these drugs include persistent dry mouth, sedation, disorientation, and irregular heartbeat (particularly with desipramine). Other medications prescribed for ADHD therapy include buproprion (Wellbutrin), an antidepressant; fluoxetine (Prozac), an antidepressant; and carbamazepine (Tegretol, Atretol), an anticonvulsant drug. Clonidine (Catapres), a medication for high blood pressure, also has been used to control aggression and hyperactivity in some ADHD children, although it should not be used with Ritalin. A child's response to medication will change with age and maturation, so ADHD symptoms should be monitored closely and prescriptions adjusted accordingly.
In mid-2003, the first new drug for treating ADHD was about to become available. Called atomoxetine (Strattera), it was planned to offer several advantages over standard stimulants. First, atomoxetine is not a controlled substance, so physicians can write prescriptions for a larger number of pills and refills. Further, it doesn't have the potential for abuse that the stimulant drugs pose.
Untreated, ADHD negatively affects a child's social and educational performance and can seriously damage his or her sense of self-esteem. ADHD children have impaired relationships with their peers and may be looked upon as social outcasts. They may be seen as slow learners or troublemakers in the classroom. Siblings and even parents may develop resentful feelings toward the ADHD child.
Some ADHD children also develop a conduct disorder problem. For those adolescents who have both ADHD and a conduct disorder, up to 25% go on to develop anti-social personality disorder and the criminal behavior, substance abuse, and high rate of suicide attempts that are symptomatic of it. Children diagnosed with ADHD also are more likely to have a learning disorder, a mood disorder such as depression, or an anxiety disorder.
Approximately 70-80% of ADHD patients treated with stimulant medication experience significant relief from symptoms, at least in the short-term. Approximately half of ADHD children seem to "outgrow" the disorder in adolescence or early adulthood. The other half will retain some or all symptoms of ADHD as adults. With early identification and intervention, careful compliance with a treatment program, and a supportive and nurturing home and school environment, ADHD children can flourish socially and academically.
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Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder. (CH.A.D.D.). 499 Northwest 70th Ave., Suite 101, Plantation, FL 33317. (800) 233-4050. <http://www.chadd.org/.>
The National Attention Deficit Disorder Association. (ADDA). 9930 Johnnycake Ridge Rd., Suite 3E, Mentor, OH 44060. (800) 487-2282. <http://www.add.org/.>
The National Resource Center of ADHD. (800) 233-4050. <http://www.help4adhd.org/.>
Teresa G. Odle