Debunking ADHD myths

Estimated to occur in as many as one in 20 school-going children, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is more common than many people think.

Commonly misunderstood and potentially disabling, it can have a significantly negative impact on the quality of life for those suffering from it.

Netcare Waterfall City Hospital notes in a release that ADHD was defined in a medical journal as early as 1902 as a “marked inability to concentrate and sustain attention”.

Although prevalent, it is not without controversy, with many professionals and members of the public voicing concern regarding the correct diagnosis and the possible long-term impact of the medication used to treat it.

However, according to Dr Anitha Gangaram, a psychiatrist practising at Netcare Waterfall City Hospital in Midrand, failure to diagnose ADHD could have significantly detrimental consequences, making it critical that children suspected of having the disorder be correctly diagnosed by a qualified professional at an early age.

The importance of correct and early diagnosis

“The diagnosis of ADHD should be based on a thorough interview by a clinician who is experienced in making the diagnosis.

“A comprehensive history is usually obtained from the patient, a relevant family member, as well as the school in the case of a young child or adolescent.

“In addition, rating scales and comprehensive questionnaires are used to make as accurate a diagnosis as possible.”

Further complicating the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD, says Gangaram, is the fact that the exact cause is not actually known, as well as the many common myths surrounding the effects of the medication used to treat it.

“Failing early and correct diagnosis, ADHD in children can lead to problems at home and at school and can significantly impact the child’s ability to learn and socialise successfully.

“These children may also struggle to follow family routine, which often has a negative effect on the parent-child relationship,” she comments.

According to Dr Gangaram, two-thirds of children and adolescents with ADHD will continue to have symptoms as adults, again emphasising the importance of early diagnosis and management.

ADHD in adolescents and adults

“ADHD in adolescents can affect all important spheres of life such as academics, peer relationships, family relationships and any life skills that are learnt during this time, for instance, driving.

“There is growing awareness that adults too can suffer from ADHD. Adults with untreated ADHD often have difficulties in maintaining stable relationships and experience increased work difficulties, as well as frequent changes in employment.

“They are also more likely to engage in addictive behaviours such as smoking, alcohol abuse and drugs. However, they do benefit from the medications used to treat this disorder,” she explains.

Myths surrounding ADHD

“All children will be inattentive, impulsive and overly active from time to time.

“However, in the case of children with ADHD, these behaviours are developmentally inappropriate and are the rule, not the exception.

“Due to the absence of an exact explanation for the cause, it is often difficult for families to accept that a child may in fact have ADHD,” said Gangaram.

“The widespread myths around the medication used to treat ADHD are another reason families opt to leave it untreated, more often than not, to the child’s detriment.

“The three most common myths are: that ADHD medication will make the child seem drugged, that it is addictive, and that children who take this medication are more likely to abuse alcohol or drugs when they become teenagers.

“These are all totally unfounded, as with the appropriate medication at the appropriate dose, ADHD medication controls ADHD symptoms without causing significant side effects.

“At the right dose, it is also not addictive for appropriately diagnosed patients. When it comes to increased substance abuse in adolescence, the opposite is in fact true.

“Leaving ADHD untreated will see teenagers seeking alternative substances in order to self-medicate,” she stressed.

And while there remains much controversy about the impact of diet on ADHD, Dr Gangaram says that there is no concrete scientific proof of a causative link between diet and the condition.

“Naturally, being exposed to a healthy and balanced diet is important in promoting optimal health and well-being in children and adults alike. And even though there have been suggestions that sugar and preservatives can in fact impact ADHD symptoms, there is no convincing medical evidence to suggest this is always the case.

“Excessive sugar intake and preservatives will only worsen symptoms of ADHD in children who are specifically sensitive to these, but not in all children. Of note is that these have not been scientifically proven to cause the disorder,” she said

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