ADHD is one of the oldest (it dates back to the 19th century!) and most well-studied neurodevelopmental disorders known to man. In recent years, ADHD has become more commonly discussed and diagnosed. We thought we’d take things one step further and put together a quick and comprehensive article about ADHD, its subtypes, causes, treatment plans, and more.
Our objective is to answer some of the most common questions we receive in our practice and provide guidance on how to best approach this diagnosis and find healing.
What exactly is ADHD?
Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder – or ADHD for short – is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders in the U.S., affecting 4 to 9.5% of children between the ages of 4 and 17. Recently, more attention has been given to undiagnosed ADHD in adults, which is estimated to affect up to 5% of Americans 18 and older – studies suggest that less than 20% of adults with ADHD are aware of their affliction, and even fewer receive treatment for it.
Types of ADHD
The DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association) defines ADHD as a “persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development”. It identifies three sub-types:
- Inattentive type, characterized by an inability to pay attention, daydreaming, poor concentration, and difficulty organizing tasks and activities. Inattentive ADHD is more common among girls and is also frequently diagnosed in adults.
- Hyperactive and impulsive type, marked by an inability to stand still, constant fidgeting, and difficulty asserting self-control. This type of ADHD is more commonly found in children and men.
- Combined ADHD, where individuals meet the criteria for both of the above subtypes.
In order to be diagnosed [A3] [A4] with ADHD, children must exhibit symptoms of inattention or hyperactivity for at least 6 months. For a full list of symptoms and diagnosis criteria, click here.
Is ADHD different from ADD?
Well, no. Attention deficit disorder is the name previously given to the inattentive subtype of ADHD. People previously diagnosed with ADD are now said to have inattentive ADHD.
Is ADHD an autism spectrum disorder (ASD)?
While ADHD and ASD can occur at the same time, the two disorders are not related. Autism spectrum disorders are developmental conditions that can affect language, social, learning, and behavioral skills, while ADHD typically concerns one’s ability to pay attention and control their impulses. As with most neurodevelopmental disorders, having ADHD increases the chances of ASD, and vice-versa – it’s estimated that the two co-occur 21% of the time. Scientists also suspected that the two are genetically interlinked.
Is ADHD Genetic?
No one knows exactly what causes ADHD. Scientists have identified that the root of ADHD is a neurological dysfunction that takes place in the processes associated with the production or use of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, but this doesn’t tell ordinary people much about what they can do to prevent disorder onset or progression. What we do know is that ADHD has a heritability of 74%, which means that in the vast majority of cases, its causes are genetic.
Scientists are also investigating environmental causes that can lead to the development of ADHD.
- Brain injury and trauma. Studies show that approximately 5% of ADHD cases are caused by brain damage and that 30% of children with traumatic brain injuries go on to develop ADHD.
- Smoking and alcohol use during pregnancy. Drinking during pregnancy can cause fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, including ADHD. Smoking and exposure to nicotine smoke can also increase the chances of ADHD.
- Premature birth and birth weight. Extremely low birth weight has been associated with an increased risk of developing ADHD.
- Exposure to environmental toxins. Some studies suggest that exposure to toxins, such as lead or PCBs, either in pregnancy or early childhood can lead to the onset of ADHD.
- Gut microbiome. Scientists have begun to investigate the link between neurodevelopmental disorders and gut health. While more studies are needed to draw proper conclusions, for the moment it has been shown that people with ADHD have a different composition of gut bacteria than healthy controls.
ADHD in Adulthood
Does ADHD get worse with age?
It’s estimated that approximately 65% of children diagnosed with ADHD continue to experience symptoms as adults. While most symptoms are known to diminish with age – particularly with the help of a good treatment plan – the ones that linger can negatively impact quality of life. Out of the three ADHD subgroups, inattentive ADHD is the one that most frequently extends into adulthood. Inattentive individuals are erratic and disorganized and may frequently experience difficulties in both their personal and professional lives because of their symptoms.
ADHD Comorbidities in Adults
While children suffering from ADHD are more commonly diagnosed with an oppositional defiant disorder, depression, or anxiety disorder, studies have shown that almost 90% of adults with ADHD have at least one comorbid mental health condition. Most commonly, adults suffering from ADHD struggle with anxiety, depression, or substance abuse. It was also reported that bipolar disorder coexists with ADHD in as much as 20% of cases.
Comorbid disorders make it increasingly difficult for adults to receive accurate ADHD diagnoses. For this reason, we recommend parents stay vigilant in observing possible signs of ADHD in their children, and follow up with their GPs without delay if they notice anything unusual.
Is ADHD a disability?
Yes and no. The Americans with Disabilities Act recognizes ADHD as a disability, provided the diagnosis substantially limits an individual’s ability to conduct their regular activities. If symptoms are minor, however, ADHD is not considered a disability.
Can You Cure ADHD?
ADHD symptoms can be managed successfully with medication, therapy, and neurofeedback. The standard medication prescribed to children suffering from ADHD is methylphenidate – commonly known by its brand name, Ritalin. It can help with hyperactivity and concentration, enabling children to focus on tasks and perform better in school. Ritalin is also used to manage symptoms of ADHD and narcolepsy in adults.
Managing ADHD through Therapy
In addition to medications, doctors usually include behavioral therapy in ADHD treatment plans. This approach empowers children with tactics that can help them replace negative and harm-causing behaviors with positive ones. In some cases, behavioral therapy alone is enough to manage ADHD symptoms.
If ADHD symptoms persist into adulthood, doctors may recommend cognitive-behavioral therapy, which can help individuals recognize how thoughts impact behavior, and how reframing them can help control ADHD symptoms.
ADHD can take on many forms, and its symptoms are often confused with or appear in conjunction with anxiety symptoms. Through a brainmap, we are able to differentiate between root causes of these symptoms in the brain. For example, a child may have trouble focusing at school due to ADHD, or they may not be able to pay attention well because they feel anxious. Using a brainmap, we identify where symptoms are coming from so that we can appropriately heal the root cause at the brain level instead of merely masking symptoms.
Neurofeedback for ADHD
Neurofeedback, a form of biofeedback that “rewires” brainwave activity, has been shown to be very efficient at targeting the brain patterns associated with attention deficiency and hyperactivity. It’s widely regarded as a promising tool that can complement traditional ADHD therapy. Through neurofeedback, we can teach the brain to produce more of the brain waves associated with focus and concentration, and in doing so help children and adults with ADHD effectively manage – and even eliminate – their symptoms.
- One study found that 20 sessions of neurofeedback therapy triggered improvements in concentration and attention that were similar to those brought on by Ritalin (Rossiter and LaVaque, 1995).
- One study demonstrated that 30 sessions of neurofeedback therapy were effective in producing cognitive, attentional, behavioral, and IQ improvements (Leins et al., 2007).
- Neurofeedback for ADHD is associated with decreased impulsiveness and hyperactivity, improved mood and concentration, increased mood stability, improved sleep patterns, and increased academic performance.
- One study found that children undergoing neurofeedback therapy made more prompt and greater improvements in ADHD symptoms, which were sustained at the 6-month follow-up, than did students who received cognitive training and the control group. (Steiner et al, 2014)
- Neurofeedback training provided significant and sometimes “dramatic” clinical improvements in children with ADD/ADHD. (Chartier and Kelly, 1992, referenced by Fox, Tharp, and Fox, 2005)
Whether you’re a parent looking to achieve a better understanding of your child’s ADHD diagnosis, or an adult just coming to terms with a lifetime of unaddressed symptoms, know that there are appropriate steps you can take to manage ADHD. Neurofeedback offers an alternative to ADHD medication, allowing adults and children to heal from ADHD without pharmaceutical intervention.
Tennessee Neurofeedback has helped nearly 2,000 clients improve their quality of life by decreasing anxiety and depression, ADHD symptoms, sleep issues, trauma and PTSD, and more. Book an initial consultation and let us do the same for you.