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Stimulant vs. Nonstimulant Medication: Decoding the Differences In an Ever-Changing ADHD Landscape

SheKnows logo SheKnows 10/26/2021 Chloe Castleberry
© Image: LIGHTFIELD STUDIOS/AdobeStock; Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows.

When it comes to ADHD treatment, sometimes it’s best to embrace a multimodal approach—a combination of several tailored, complementary approaches that work together to reduce symptoms. For many people, this ideal combination can include counseling, behavioral therapy, parenting training, a healthy lifestyle, school accommodations, and medication. In terms of ADHD medication, there are two main types: nonstimulant/noncontrolled and stimulant/controlled. While both treat ADHD symptoms, it can be a challenge to figure out which type of medication is better for your child. Dr. Natalie Weder, a Senior Child, and Adolescent Psychiatrist at the Child Mind Institute tells SheKnows that choosing the right medication truly depends on the patient. “You really have to look into the specifics of each patient to make that decision,” says Dr. Weder.

You have to do your research and see what makes each medication different from its counterpart and why. For starters, stimulants have been around longer, which means there is more research on and more knowledge about this type of treatment.

Nonstimulants, however, are also proven to be effective for children with ADHD.

Take a look at the guide below to learn more about each type of medication and make better, more informed decisions on which type may be right for your child.

How they work

Most stimulants are believed to work by increasing dopamine levels in the brain.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with motivation, pleasure, attention, and movement. Some nonstimulants work by targeting the brain chemical norepinephrine, which can increase a person’s attention span and decrease their impulsive behavior.

Effectiveness will vary from child to child—there’s no way to be certain a specific treatment will work—but both types of medication are commonly used to treat the three main core symptoms of ADHD: inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

How quickly they start working

Stimulants typically act fast; a child could potentially feel the effects within 30 to 90 minutes of administration. Depending on the type of stimulant—extended-release, immediate-release, or sustained release—and how a child responds to them, stimulants can leave the system in 3 to 12 hours. Nonstimulants vary in the speed at which a patient may start to notice symptom relief. For some patients, it can be in days or weeks rather than hours. Nonstimulants tend to stay in the system longer than stimulants. Nonstimulants can stay in the system for up to 24 hours.

Potential side effects

As with all medications, ADHD medications, both stimulant, and nonstimulant, come with potential side effects. Some common side effects of stimulants include difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, feeling restless and jittery, having tics, headaches, upset stomach, and racing heartbeat. Some potential side effects of nonstimulants include drowsiness, decreased appetite, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, insomnia, and irritability.

Using a multimodal approach

In addition to medication, some children with ADHD receive behavioral therapy to help manage symptoms and provide added coping skills, which Dr. Weder believes is something parents should definitely consider. She also believes parents and teachers should have at least some knowledge of ADHD. “I think that making sure teachers and parents understand the condition is going to help the child get the right support,” she says. “And because of the waves made in treatment development over the years, parents, teachers, and doctors are able to have more resources at their disposal to better support children and adolescents with ADHD.”

The power of a good treatment plan

According to the CDC, studies show the number of children being diagnosed with ADHD continues to increase.

The good news is, the disorder is very much treatable, with research proving that a multimodal approach can be effective. According to CHADD, research from the landmark National Institute of Mental Health Multimodal Treatment Study of ADHD showed that children with ADHD who received carefully monitored medication in combination with behavioral treatment had significantly improved behavior both at home and in school.

These children also showed better relationships with their classmates and family than children who did not receive this combination of treatment.

This article was created by SheKnows for Supernus. 

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