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  » Medical Topic Archive  »  Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Contents of this page:

Alternative names
Definition
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
Symptoms
Signs and tests
Treatment
Expectations (prognosis)
Complications
Calling your health care provider
Prevention
References

Alternative names
ADD; ADHD; Childhood hyperkinesis

Definition
ADHD is a problem with inattentiveness, over-activity, impulsivity, or a combination. For these problems to be diagnosed as ADHD, they must be out of the normal range for the child's age and development.

Causes, incidence, and risk factors
ADHD affects school performance and relationships with others. Parents of children with ADHD are often exhausted and frustrated.
Scientific studies, using advanced neuroimaging techniques of brain structure and function, show that the brains of children with ADHD are different from those of other children. These children handle neurotransmitters (including dopamine, serotonin, and adrenalin) differently from their peers.
ADHD is often genetic. Whatever the specific cause may be, it seems to be set in motion early in life as the brain is developing.
Depression, sleep deprivation, learning disabilities, tic disorders, and behavior problems may be confused with, or appear along with, ADHD. Every child suspected of having ADHD deserves a careful evaluation to sort out exactly what is contributing to the concerning behaviors.
Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) is the most commonly diagnosed behavioral disorder of childhood, affecting an estimated 3 - 5% of school aged children. It is diagnosed much more often in boys than in girls.
Most children with ADHD also have at least one other developmental or behavioral problem.

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Symptoms
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) divides the symptoms of ADHD into those of inattentiveness and those of hyperactivity/impulsivity.
To be diagnosed with ADHD, children should have at least 6 attention symptoms or 6 activity/impulsivity symptoms -- to a degree beyond what would be expected for children their age.
The symptoms must be present for at least 6 months, observable in 2 or more settings, and not caused by another problem. The symptoms must be severe enough to cause significant difficulties. Some symptoms must be present before age 7.
Older children who still have symptoms, but no longer meet the full definition, have ADHD in partial remission.
Some children with ADHD primarily have the Inattentive Type, some the Hyperactive-Impulsive Type, and some the Combined Type. Those with the Inattentive type are less disruptive and are easier to miss being diagnosed with ADHD.

Inattention symptoms:
1. Fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork
2. Difficulty sustaining attention in tasks or play
3. Does not seem to listen when spoken to directly
4. Does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace
5. Difficulty organizing tasks and activities
6. Avoids or dislikes tasks that require sustained mental effort (such as schoolwork)
7. Often loses toys, assignments, pencils, books, or tools needed for tasks or activities
8. Easily distracted
9. Often forgetful in daily activities

Hyperactivity symptoms:
1. Fidgets with hands or feet or squirms in seat
2. Leaves seat when remaining seated is expected
3. Runs about or climbs in inappropriate situations
4. Difficulty playing quietly
5. Often "on the go", acts as if "driven by a motor", talks excessively
Impulsivity symptoms:
1. Blurts out answers before questions have been completed
2. Difficulty awaiting turn
3. Interrupts or intrudes on others (butts into conversations or games)

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Signs and tests
Too often, difficult children are incorrectly labeled with ADHD. On the other hand, many children who do have ADHD remain undiagnosed. In either case, related learning disabilities or mood problems are often missed. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has issued guidelines to bring more clarity to this issue.
The diagnosis is based on very specific symptoms, which must be present in more than one setting. The child should have a clinical evaluation if ADHD is suspected.
Evaluation may include:

  • Parent and teacher questionnaires (Connors, Burks)
  • Psychological evaluation of the child AND family including IQ testing and psychological testing
  • Complete developmental, mental, nutritional, physical, and psychosocial examination

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Treatment
The American Academy of Pediatrics has guidelines for treating ADHD:

  • Set specific, appropriate target goals to guide therapy.
  • Medication and/or behavior therapy should be started.
  • When treatment has not met the target goals, evaluate the original diagnosis, the possible presence of other conditions, and how well the treatment plan has been implemented.
  • Systematic follow-up is important to regularly reassess target goals, results, and any side effects of medications. Information should be gathered from parents, teachers, and the child.

ADHD is a frustrating problem. Alternative remedies have become quite popular, including herbs, supplements, and chiropractic manipulation. However, there is little or no solid evidence for many remedies marketed to parents.
Children who receive both behavioral treatment and medication often do the best. Medications should not be used just to make life easier for the parents or the school. There are now several different classes of ADHD medications that may be used alone or in combination. The following may also help:

  • Limit distractions in the child's environment.
  • Provide one-on-one instruction with teacher.
  • Make sure the child gets enough sleep.
  • Make sure the child gets a healthy, varied diet, with plenty of fiber and basic nutrients.

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Expectations (prognosis)
ADHD is a long-term, chronic condition. About half of the children with ADHD will continue to have troublesome symptoms of inattention or impulsivity as adults. However, adults are often more capable of controlling behavior and masking difficulties.
Statistics show that there is an increased incidence in juvenile delinquency and adult encounters with the law among individuals who had ADHD as a child.
Every effort should be made to manage symptoms and direct the child's energy to constructive and educational paths.

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Complications
There are a high number of adults with ADHD who are in successful jobs. Possible complications, if ADHD is not adequately treated, could include failure in school or other similar problems.

Calling your health care provider
Call your health care provider if you or your child's school personnel suspect the possibility of attention deficit disorder.

Prevention
While there is no proven way to prevent ADHD itself, early identification and treatment can prevent many of the problems associated with ADHD.

References
American Academy of Pediatrics. Clinical practice guideline: diagnosis and evaluation of the child with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Pediatrics. 2000; 105(5). 1158-1170.

Update Date: 11/7/2003
Updated by: Alan Greene, M.D., F.A.A.P., Department of Pediatrics, Stanford School of Medicine; Lucile Packard Children's Hospital; Chief Medical Officer, A.D.A.M., Inc.

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