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How Does ADHD Medication Work

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, is a common neurodevelopmental disorder that is often treated with medication. But how does this medication work, and why is it prescribed? If you or a loved one has ADHD, it can help to understand why a healthcare provider might prescribe ADHD medication and what its effects are on the individual. In this blog, we’ll take a deeper dive into how ADHD medication works and the different types of medication available. Read on to learn more.

A Brief Overview of ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder)

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects an individual's ability to pay attention, control impulsive behaviors, and regulate activity levels. This can affect someone’s daily life, both at school or work and in their relationships.

ADHD can affect individuals differently, but some of the most common symptoms are difficulty focusing, forgetfulness, impulsivity, restlessness, and hyperactivity. The exact causes of ADHD aren’t fully understood, but research points to a possible combination of genetic and environmental factors that may lead to someone having ADHD.

ADHD is a relatively common condition in the neurodevelopmental category and can be present in children and adults. Once someone is diagnosed with ADHD, a healthcare provider will typically develop a treatment plan to address the condition. Treatment may involve therapy, lifestyle changes, behavioral interventions, and medications when necessary.

If a primary care provider recommends ADHD medication, it typically falls into two categories. Let’s take a look at the types of ADHD medication next.

Types of ADHD Medication

As mentioned, there are two primary categories of ADHD medication. The most common are stimulant medications. The other category is non-stimulant medications. On occasion, a non-stimulant may be recommended in tandem with a stimulant. With that being said, let’s take a close look at each of these medications in the next section.

Stimulant Medication

Stimulant medications are the most common ADHD medications. They contain methylphenidate or amphetamine as active ingredients, which work by increasing dopamine and norepinephrine levels in the brain. These chemicals, known as neurotransmitters, regulate your ability to pay attention and think.

Stimulants can be immediate-release or extended-release. Immediate releases are typically taken as needed and last for several hours, whereas extended releases are taken in the morning and last throughout most of the day. 

Stimulants are strictly prescription medications and are considered controlled substances. While the chance is low, stimulants can lead to substance abuse disorders, which is why they are highly regulated.

Nonetheless, many people with ADHD find stimulant medication to be a useful tool for addressing their symptoms. Studies have shown that they can improve symptoms and make ADHD more manageable.

It’s worth noting that stimulants aren’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Some medications may work for someone and do nothing for another. Your primary care provider may have to adjust your dosage or medication to find the right fit for your ADHD. Regardless, you will need to have regular appointments with your healthcare provider to monitor the efficacy of your medication and the state of your condition.

Non-Stimulant Medication

While stimulant medication is the most common, it’s not the right solution for everyone. Non-stimulant medications may be offered as an alternative for several reasons, including:

  • Efficacy - The stimulants may not be working. Non-stimulants may work better for someone than stimulant medications.
  • Side effects - Non-stimulants can be an alternative if the side effects of stimulants are severe or affect daily life.
  • Supplemental - Occasionally, non-stimulants may be used in tandem with stimulants to improve efficacy.
  • Substance abuse history - Individuals with a history of substance abuse may not be able to take stimulants, leaving non-stimulants as an alternative.
  • Medication reactions - Individuals may already be taking medications that would react negatively with stimulants. There are also medical conditions that may make stimulants a non-option.

Unlike stimulants, non-stimulants don’t contain methylphenidate or amphetamine, meaning they aren’t controlled substances. Rather, these medications either fall in the norepinephrine modulators and alpha agonists category. Both react with the brain in a way to boost norepinephrine levels, which can improve focus, memory, and impulse control.

Non-stimulants' potential benefits include fewer side effects (though there are still possible side effects), less potential for abuse, and improved symptoms. 

As with any medication, consulting your healthcare provider will be necessary when diagnosing ADHD and coming up with a treatment plan. But being familiar with your medication options can help you discuss treatment with your doctor and determine the best option for your needs.

Mechanism of Action

Let’s dive deeper into understanding how ADHD medication works. For that, we need to understand the ‘mechanism of action’ for stimulants and non-stimulants. The mechanism of action describes how a medication produces the desired effect in the body. We briefly touched on this earlier, and in the case of stimulants, the mechanism of action is methylphenidate or amphetamine. For non-stimulants, common active ingredients include atomoxetine, viloxazine hydrochloride, clonidine, or guanfacine. 

In either case, the mechanism of action in stimulants and non-stimulants affects the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. Stimulants work by increasing the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, while non-stimulants only increase norepinephrine.

While the mechanisms of action in these medications can help manage ADHD symptoms, they aren’t cures. Medication is best used in combination with other treatment options to produce the best possible outcomes for patients.

It’s also important to note that individuals can respond to ADHD medications in very different ways. Everyone’s brain chemistry is unique, and it may take some trial and error to determine the right medication and the best dosage for the individual. It’s important to be patient while addressing ADHD.

Overall, understanding the mechanism of action behind ADHD medication can help individuals with ADHD and their loved ones make informed decisions about treatment options and set realistic expectations for symptom management. As always, consulting with a healthcare professional is crucial for safe and effective medication use.

Benefits of ADHD Medication

When medically appropriate, ADHD medication can provide significant benefits to those who have been diagnosed. Below are some of the advantages of ADHD medication:

  • Improved focus - ADHD medication can help individuals focus, improving both their ability to pay attention and their ability to concentrate.
  • Improved impulse control - Individuals with ADHD may sometimes struggle with impulsive behavior, which can be improved with ADHD medication
  • Improved memory - ADHD can cause forgetfulness, and medication may help improve working memory in individuals.
  • Regulated activity levels - Those with ADHD may struggle with restlessness and hyperactivity. ADHD can help lessen these symptoms.
  • Improve social skills - The symptoms of ADHD can sometimes lead to individuals struggling socially and with their relationships. Medication can help control these symptoms, leading to better social interactions.

Medication may not provide these benefits to everyone, and it may be necessary to include other treatment strategies for optimal results. Still, it’s important to note the benefits of medication when considering your treatment options.

Side Effects & Considerations

Like with any medication, ADHD medication can come with a range of potential side effects. It's important to be aware of these potential effects so you can make an informed decision about whether or not medication is right for you or your loved one with ADHD.

Some common side effects of stimulant medication can include:

  • Decreased appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Nausea
  • Upset stomach
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Tics or twitching
  • Rebound effect

The rebound effect refers to a short period of bad mood or fatigue an individual may experience when their medication is wearing off. These side effects are typically mild and short-lived, but you should consult your doctor if they become severe.

Non-stimulant medication has similar side effects, with the most common being:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Upset stomach
  • Insomnia
  • Decreased appetite
  • Headaches
  • Weight loss

Again, these side effects are typically mild and temporary, but monitoring and reporting them to your healthcare provider is important.

Along with being aware of the side effects, some other considerations you may want to note regarding ADHD medication include the following:

  • Dependence or substance abuse risks
  • Interactions with other medications, vitamins, or supplements
  • Impact on other medical conditions

Weighing the benefits and disadvantages of medication can help you and your doctor make the most informed decisions possible on your care.

The Importance of Consulting a Healthcare Professional

If you suspect you or your child have ADHD, it’s important to consult a healthcare professional. Treatment for ADHD can vary on an individual basis, and a healthcare provider can help by officially diagnosing you and coming up with the best treatment plan possible for your individual needs and concerns.

A healthcare professional can also monitor your progress and make adjustments to your treatment plan as necessary. If medication is a medically appropriate part of your treatment plan, a healthcare professional is the only way to access the common prescription medications for ADHD.

Regular consultations with a healthcare professional are especially important when you get on medication. Your healthcare provider can help explain the medication, address questions and concerns, and adjust medications or dosage to better manage your symptoms.

In short, it’s important to remember that ADHD medication should never be taken without a prescription or medical supervision. Taking medication that hasn't been prescribed or monitored by a healthcare professional can be dangerous and may result in serious side effects.

Talk to a Telehealth Provider Today

If you believe you have ADHD symptoms, a telehealth primary care provider can help. With telehealth, you can get all of the same services as in-person care, including diagnoses, treatment plans, and prescriptions when medically appropriate.

Additionally, telehealth provides additional advantages such as convenience, less travel time, no waiting rooms, and care from the comfort of your home.

Get Treatment with Circle Medical

Circle Medical is a telehealth clinic where you can meet with an online primary care provider for an ADHD assessment and to talk about treatment. With Circle Medical, you can access care and schedule appointments directly through our app. With same-day appointments available, you can also start with care as soon as possible. Schedule your appointment today!

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