How Do I Know If ADHD Medication Is Working?

Written by Vanessa Bates Ramirez | Published on October 28, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Susan J. Bliss, RPh, MBA on October 28, 2014

ADHD medications are created to create uniform brain changes, but how can you tell if they're working?

boy with adhd doing homework

A New Sensation

Many of the medications we take have a quick and clear result. It’s harder, however, to gauge the effectiveness of drugs for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These medications are taken for a variety of symptoms. Although most medications produce a uniform chemical response in the brain, they may cause some people to feel different effects.

Finding the Right Balance

The first step to figuring out whether your medication is working is to know what you want the medication to do. Do you want to improve your focus? Stabilize your emotions? Keep impulsive behavior in check? It’s a good idea to set a goal and monitor your progress towards that goal.

See how much time it takes you to complete a specific task without medication. Then, keep track of how long the same task takes once you start a prescription. Measuring your medication’s effects can be difficult because there are many other factors that can influence your concentration and mood. A night of poor sleep, for example, would likely cause you to feel irritable and distracted even while on medication.

Discover five natural ways to fight ADHD symptoms »

When starting an ADHD prescription, try to keep other health factors like sleep, diet, and caffeine and alcohol use stable. That way, you’ll know that if you feel different it’s likely due to the medicine you’re taking. If your initial prescription isn’t giving you the results you want, be patient. You may need to adjust your dosage or try a different medication.

ADHD Symptoms

ADHD medication aims to stabilize your brain function and behavior. ADHD medications are mainly meant to treat symptoms like:

  • inattention, such as difficulty focusing on a topic or task
  • hyperactivity, which involves an excess of both physical and mental activity
  • impulsive behavior based on reactions instead of thoughts

Noticing a reduction in symptoms is a good sign that the medication is working. Additionally, when taking prescriptions like Adderall or Ritalin, many people describe feeling like a fog has lifted or a switch has been turned on.

It’s true that these medications may leave you feeling calmer and more focused, but it’s unlikely that all of your symptoms will disappear. Many people on ADHD medication still struggle with issues like poor time management or difficulty with interpersonal relationships.

Side Effects of ADHD Medication

Side effects may not occur the same way in everyone, but their presence is another sign that a medication is affecting your body.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, stimulant therapy is the most common ADHD therapy. Brand-name stimulant medications include Adderall, Ritalin, Dexedrine, and others. Stimulants work by increasing the level of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that communicates feelings of pleasure and enhances motivation. Increased dopamine levels improve the brain’s ability to respond to external signals, which is why stimulants make you feel more alert.

While many people experience positive results from stimulants, there can also be negative side effects. Common side effects of stimulants include:

  • increase in blood pressure
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased body temperature
  • trouble sleeping
  • feeling less hungry than usual

Alternative ADHD medications are available for people who dislike the side effects of stimulants. Strattera is a non-stimulant that treats ADHD by raising the brain’s level of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter similar to dopamine.

In children, possible side effects of atomoxetine hydrochloride (the generic ingredient in Strattera) include:

  • nausea, vomiting, and stomach pain
  • fatigue or sleepiness
  • decreased appetite

In adults, Strattera may cause a range of symptoms, including:

  • constipation
  • dry mouth
  • nausea
  • fatigue
  • insomnia
  • decreased appetite

Certain antidepressants and blood pressure medications can also be used to treat symptoms of ADHD. In order to understand the side effects and other possible outcomes of a drug, consult the drug information on any prescription you take for ADHD.

Lifestyle Changes

ADHD medications can help put you on track to better focus and emotional control, but it’s important not to rely just on pills to treat your condition. There are many changes you can make in your day-to-day life that will enhance the effects of medication and leave you feeling your best. Helpful steps you can take are:

  • Exercise. Physical activity is a great natural antidote to ADHD symptoms. Along with keeping your body fit and your heart healthy, exercise raises dopamine and norepinephrine levels in your brain. According to a study in Current Psychiatry Reports, exercise enhances brain functions, which can also improve ADHD symptoms.  
  • Try therapy. A therapist can help you develop skills and habits to deal with the challenges that arise from having ADHD. According to a study in JAMA, cognitive behavioral therapy can help treat ADHD in people who continue to experience symptoms after trying medication. The benefits of therapy were shown to last several months.
  • Sleep well. It’s a great feeling to wake up rested and refreshed after a good night’s sleep. Not only is your body refreshed, your brain is too. According to a study in Science, the brain’s cleansing system disposes of harmful toxins more easily while we sleep than when we’re awake. Try to establish a healthy sleep routine of at least seven to eight hours a night.


ADHD is a complex condition that affects different people in very different ways. Seeking treatment through medication is an important step for dealing with your symptoms. New medications take some getting used to, so give your body and mind time to adjust to your treatment. If you’re still not satisfied with the results you’re getting, talk to your doctor about adjusting your prescription or seeking alternative means of treatment.

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