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What is Attention-Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Definition and Overview

Attention deficient hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a behavioral disorder characterized by a very short attention span, difficulty in controlling one’s behavior, passiveness, or hyperactivity. It is one of the most common disorders affecting children, although it can also be diagnosed among teenagers and adults. The exact reason for its development remains unknown.

It is difficult to diagnose ADHD, especially among children since they are often hyperactive and difficult to manage while they are still young. Thus, it’s essential that parents visit their pediatrician regularly to ensure that the doctor can closely monitor not only the physical but also the mental and social development of the child.

ADHD has three subtypes, which produce different symptoms. These are:

  • Predominantly inattentive – These are children who are likely to be more passive as they spend more time daydreaming or overthinking. Although they can still be impulsive or hyperactive, these behaviors do not appear often and only to a lesser degree.

  • Predominantly hyperactive or impulsive – These are children who are always moving, doing something, or acting on impulse. They can still be passive, but this is only to a lesser degree.

  • Combined – These are children who exhibit both ends of the spectrum—that is, they can be both inattentive and hyperactive at different times and circumstances. The degree of which they exhibit these symptoms is equal.


Most of the children with ADHD have the combined subtype.

People who have ADHD exhibit behaviors that may be considered as “not the norm.” Thus, they often have difficulty socializing with other people or building relationships. They may also perform poorly in school and later in life, such as in finding or keeping a job.

Although there’s still no known cure for ADHD, multifaceted approaches can help people with the condition cope with it so they can live as normally as possible.

Causes of Condition

Until now, the exact cause of ADHD remains unknown. However, researchers have different theories and believe that the following contribute to its development:

Genes – One of the areas being looked into is genes. Some studies that involved twins indicate that ADHD can be familial—that is, the genes responsible for ADHD may be passed on from parents to their children. However, what’s unclear is what triggers ADHD and how these genes can be turned off or altered to reduce the symptoms, cure, or prevent the condition from developing.

Brain structure – There are also studies that suggest that the thickness of the brain tissue may determine whether or not the child is susceptible to ADHD—that is, the thinner the tissue that regulates attention is, the higher the risk of ADHD. The formation of these tissues, on the other hand, may be significantly affected by genes. Studies have also showed that as the child grows older, these tissues have the chance to become thicker, therefore reducing the symptoms of ADHD.

Environmental – Some researchers cite the possible role that environmental factors such as drinking alcohol or smoking have on the baby’s health and development, especially in the formation of the brain. The substances that are present in cigarettes and alcohol can alter the normal development of the baby’s brain.

Food – New studies are focused on understanding the role food plays in the development of ADHD symptoms. Two of the things that are looked into are additives and sugar. The assumption is that these two can alter the way the body metabolizes or its processes, including how the brain works.

There are also risk factors associated with ADHD, including pre-term birth and low birth weight of the baby.

Key Symptoms

  • Difficulty in paying attention to one thing over a period of time
  • Easily distracted
  • Forgetfulness
  • Less attention to detail
  • Tendency to move on from one activity to the other in a short span of time
  • Easily bored
  • Tendency to throw tantrums or exhibiting anger due to lack of things to do, inability to communicate feelings properly, or running out of enjoyable things
  • Poor organization skills
  • Struggle in academic performance
  • Difficulty in building friendships with other children
  • Inattentiveness when spoken to
  • Passiveness and daydreaming
  • Nonstop talking


These symptoms can appear in varying degrees. Because the symptoms are very broad and vague, it’s not unusual for children to be misdiagnosed.

Who to See and Treatments Available

ADHD is difficult to diagnose for many different reasons. However, most often, parents and schoolteachers start to become concerned when the child acts “not like the others.” For instance, a child with ADHD is less likely to stay in his seat for a long time and may blurt out comments impulsively.

To diagnose the condition, health care professionals, who can be a pediatrician or a psychiatrist, conduct a series of examinations, comprehensive interviews, and observations. This is to rule out any possible reason to explain the child’s behavior.

So far, there’s no cure for ADHD, and interventions are meant to control the symptoms. One of the most popular classes of drug given to ADHD sufferers, whether adults or children, is a stimulant.

Contrary to its name, stimulants can promote calmness and decrease inattentiveness. It can be given to children as young as three years old, although the average age of diagnosis is seven years old. These drugs do have side effects, such as decreased appetite and body aches. In very rare cases, these side effects can be severe such as a heart attack or hallucinations. It is therefore important that parents coordinate closely with the doctor in monitoring the drug’s use and dosage.

Drugs are complemented by other therapies including behavioral therapy, which aims to help the sufferers modify their behavior and adapt better to certain situations. They may learn how to control their symptoms on their own such as paying more attention to a particular task.

Parents play a big part in the treatment of their children, especially in the area of psychotherapy, since they are the ones who spend more time with them. The earlier the intervention is carried out, the bigger the chance the child can grow up normally. Parents can be taught to identify triggers, control the child’s behavior, and encourage children to play on their strengths.

References:

  • American Academy of Pediatrics, Subcommittee on Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Steering Committee on Quality Improvement and Management. ADHD: Clinical practice guideline for the diagnosis, evaluation, and treatment of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in children and adolescents. Pediatrics. 2011;128:1007-1022.

  • Bostic JQ, Prince JB. Child and adolescent psychiatric disorders. In: Stern TA, Rosenbaum JF, Fava M, et al., eds. Massachusetts General Hospital Comprehensive Clinical Psychiatry. 1st ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Mosby; 2008: chap 69.