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What does ADHD Medicine do?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 18, 2024
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A number of types of medication are available to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ADHD medicine works in a number of different ways, all of which revolve around altering the patient's brain chemistry so that he or she can focus more easily. These medications are designed to reduce disruptive and antisocial behavior, allowing people with ADHD to feel more comfortable in workplaces and classrooms.

Stimulants were the first drugs utilized for the treatment of ADHD. While it may sound peculiar to give a stimulant to a patient who appears to be suffering from overstimulation, these drugs actually work by altering levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. The increase in levels of neurotransmitters helps students to focus, giving them longer attention spans, better concentration, and more patience so that they can sit still and complete tasks successfully.

The use of stimulants such as Ritalin®, Adderall®, and Concerta® has been controversial in some circles. Dopamine is closely involved with addiction, and some people fear that ADHD medicine could become addictive and that patients could gradually become less sensitive to it, making it less effective. Doctors have argued that when ADHD is managed with medicine, behavioral therapy, and other techniques that the potential risk of addiction is outweighed by the benefits to the patient on the medication.

Strattera® is an ADHD medicine which is not a stimulant, but is designed to increase the levels of norepinephrine in the brain by inhibiting the brain's ability to reuptake this neurotransmitter. Several antidepressant medications are also utilized in the treatment of ADHD to alter the brain chemistry of the patient. Because many different drugs can be used in ADHD treatment, it is often necessary to try several medications and dosage options to find the treatment which works most effectively for an individual patient. Every brain is slightly different, and may respond differently to medications which change brain chemistry.

ADHD medicine appears to target the prefrontal cortex, providing more patience and impulse control to the patient. These drugs are available in short and long acting versions, with long acting drugs being popular because they keep patients focused all day and reduce the number of times a patient needs to take medication. When people start taking ADHD medicine, they should be aware that it can take some time for the medication to work, and they should report all side effects and discomfort to their doctors, as it is possible to switch or adjust a medication to deal with side effects.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon285636 — On Aug 16, 2012

I have a cousin who was just diagnosed with ADD.

By orangey03 — On Apr 06, 2012

@OeKc05 – Adderall, like many stimulant ADHD medications, has mostly heart-related side effects. My best friend is on it, and luckily, she hasn't experienced any major problems because of it.

There is always a risk of stroke or heart attack, since the medication does stimulate the circulatory system. However, in people with ADHD, it can actually lower blood pressure, because it decreases appetite and helps people lose weight. My friend lost forty pounds and lowered her blood pressure simply because she wasn't hungry.

I will say that I have noticed that she is more aggressive now than before. She seems more intense in her opinions, and it is easier for her to become angry.

By OeKc05 — On Apr 06, 2012

My brother is on Adderall. At first, the lowest dosage was working fine for him. After a few weeks, though, he had to go up in dosage strength.

His doctor required him to go back to him once a month for reevaluation. He wanted to make sure that the medication wasn't causing him to develop high blood pressure or other problems related to stimulant use.

He had to go up in dosage strength twice. This is a little scary to me, because it means his body has developed a tolerance for the medication.

Does anyone know what the long-term side effects of Adderall are? I hate to think that he is putting himself in danger by using a higher dose of it.

By cloudel — On Apr 05, 2012

@Oceana – Just like with kids, if an adult without ADHD takes the type of stimulant prescribed for it, then it will act like speed for them. That's why many people are selling and abusing ADHD medication.

You have to go through an expensive process just to get it legally. My husband's doctor told him he would have to be evaluated by a psychiatrist first. He had to spend $400 to be tested for ADHD, but the psychiatrist did confirm that he had it.

I am amazed that an amphetamine could calm my husband down and help him focus, but it does. I would probably have a heart attack if I took it, but it actually lessens his hyperactivity and lets him finish one thing at a time.

By Oceana — On Apr 05, 2012

I think there is a thin line between an ADHD child and a simply hyperactive child. Children naturally have so much energy, so it can be hard to tell the difference.

Though I'm sure some kids really need Ritalin, I do believe that the condition is overdiagnosed. My sister-in-law's son is on the medication, but he is still just as unruly and annoying as ever.

If you give a kid without ADHD a stimulant, then it will make them even more hyperactive. That is why I believe that my nephew was misdiagnosed.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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