Banner Health
Making healthcare easier

ADHD Diagnosis and Treatment

Many people, especially children, will sometimes have trouble paying attention, sitting still or being patient. But with ADHD, these behaviors are more pronounced and can impact life at home, school and work, relationships and day-to-day functioning. ADHD diagnosis and treatment can help.

How is ADHD diagnosed?

Psychiatrists, psychologists and other trained health care professionals such as your primary care doctor or pediatrician can diagnose ADHD. You can also get help from your local early intervention agency for children under age 3 and your public school for children aged 3 and older.

To start, your doctor or your child’s doctor will want to determine if any other health problems could be causing symptoms. Depression, anxiety, stress, difficulty sleeping, learning disabilities, head injuries, seizure disorders, substance use or thyroid conditions can cause similar issues. You or your child may need hearing and vision testing to make sure there aren’t any problems in those areas. Blood tests and imaging tests aren’t used to diagnose ADHD, but they could be used to rule out other conditions.

Checklists for rating symptoms can be used to diagnose ADHD. Older children, teens and adults can complete these checklists on their own. Your doctor or mental health professional may also ask that someone close to the person with ADHD, such as a parent, partner or teacher, complete a checklist. You may also need neuropsychological or psychoeducational testing to help determine the type (or diagnostic classification) of ADHD.

Providers use the guidelines found in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to help make sure you get diagnosed properly. Generally, individuals with ADHD have symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity that have lasted for at least six months. These symptoms have to be present before age 12 and in at least two settings (such as home and school or work), interfere with functioning, and not be attributed to another mental health problem.

How is ADHD treated?

There’s no cure for ADHD, and it’s often a condition that lasts a lifetime. But treating ADHD can help get symptoms under control so people with it can function better. Untreated, it can be challenging for people with ADHD to succeed.

Medication, behavioral therapy and education all can help, and usually, they work best in combination. For children aged 4 to 5, experts usually recommend trying behavioral therapy first, before medication.

ADHD medications

There are two main categories of medication for ADHD—stimulant and non-stimulant. You or your child might need to try different dosages or medications to find what works best.

Stimulant medications 

Stimulant medications contain methylphenidate or amphetamine and help increase two brain chemicals, dopamine and norepinephrine, which are vital in thinking and paying attention. They tend to start working right away.

Stimulant medications include:

  • Methylphenidate: Methylphenidate-based medications, such as Ritalin, Concerta, and Daytrana (patch). Ritalin is available in immediate-release and extended-release forms, while Concerta is an extended-release formulation. Daytrana is a transdermal patch that provides a continuous release of medication over a set period.
  • Amphetamines: Amphetamine-based medications, like Adderall and Vyvanse, are also widely used for ADHD treatment. They work by stimulating the release of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. Adderall is available in immediate-release and extended-release versions, while Vyvanse is a long-acting stimulant that provides a consistent release of medication throughout the day.
  • Dexmethylphenidate: Dexmethylphenidate (e.g., Focalin) is another form of methylphenidate. It is available in immediate-release and extended-release formulations. Compared to other methylphenidate medications, Focalin is typically seen as stronger and starts working faster.
  • Lisdexamfetamine: Lisdexamfetamine, such as Vyvanse, is a type of medication that gets transformed into dextroamphetamine inside the body. It is an extended-release medication that provides a sustained effect for up to 14 hours.

These stimulants are considered safe when taken as directed, under the supervision of a health care professional. They are unlikely to lead to dependence when used as directed. Side effects can include insomnia, slow growth, headaches, anxiety, loss of appetite, weight loss, increased blood pressure and increased heart rate. If you experience these side effects, they can usually be managed with the help of your doctor.

Non-stimulant medications

Non-stimulant medications such as atomoxetine (Strattera) and guanfacine (Intuniv) may take longer than stimulants before you see a response. Your doctor may recommend this type of medication if a stimulant medication doesn’t work for you or is causing troublesome side effects, or in combination with a stimulant to get better control of your symptoms.

Side effects can include increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, dry mouth, insomnia, nausea, constipation, decreased appetite, dizziness, decreased libido, erectile dysfunction, urinary difficulty and rarely, liver failure.

What about antidepressants?

Antidepressants such as bupropion aren’t approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treating ADHD. But sometimes, they’re prescribed as an alternative if you experience side effects from a stimulant. They may also be prescribed in combination with a stimulant, particularly if you have depression, anxiety disorder or another mood disorder as well as ADHD.

What about supplements?

The use of supplements for treating ADHD is a topic that has gained attention, but it's important to note that research in this area is limited and the effectiveness of supplements for ADHD management is not well-established. It's important to note that supplements should not replace evidence-based treatments for ADHD, such as behavioral therapy and medication, especially for moderate to severe cases. If considering the use of supplements, it is essential to consult with a health care professional who can provide personalized advice and guidance based on the individual's specific needs and medical history.

Counseling and professional support

Health care professionals can help people with ADHD and their families cope, function and manage their symptoms more effectively.

  • Behavioral therapy can help children with ADHD change their behavior. With it, children can learn to organize their tasks, complete schoolwork, monitor their behavior, take turns and think before acting.
  • Parenting skills training helps parents develop a system of rewards and consequences to encourage certain behaviors and discourage others.
  • Social skills training helps children learn to wait in line, take turns and participate in conversations without interrupting.
  • Classroom and academic accommodations can help children with ADHD succeed at school. Accommodations like a 504 plan or IEP (Individualized education plan) could include preferential seating, reduced classwork or extended test time.
  • Family and marital therapy can help parents of children with ADHD and family members of adults with ADHD, who may experience feelings of frustration, blame and anger. Support from a mental health professional can help you learn how ADHD affects a family and can help you improve your relationships. These professionals can also help you learn stress management techniques.
  • Support groups can help you connect with other people who share your problems and concerns. They often provide information about strategies that work and can share names of local professionals they’ve worked with.

Lifestyle Changes

While lifestyle changes won’t treat ADHD, they can help make it easier for you or your child to manage symptoms. You can try:

  • Choosing healthy foods centered around lean proteins, vegetables, fruit and whole grains
  • Getting physical activity every day
  • Limiting screen time
  • Getting adequate restorative sleep every night
  • Practicing mindfulness or meditation

Whatever treatment methods you try, you’ll want to stay in close contact with your doctor to see how you’re managing your symptoms and decide if you need to make any changes. Not every treatment works for every person with ADHD and sometimes, a combination of treatments is best.

Learn more about support for children and adults with ADHD