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Pros and Cons of Ritalin for ADHD

written by: Mayflor Markusic • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 7/23/2010

Ritalin is the most familiar brand of medication for people with ADHD. It has been used for more than 30 years to lessen the behavioral problems caused by ADHD and ADD. But there has been a growing concern over the use of Ritalin. Why?

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    Why Prescribe Ritalin?

    Ritalin is a Novartis' brand name for methylphenidate hydrochloride, a drug used in ADHD treatment. Similar to most ADHD medications, methylphenidate is a stimulant. It may appear counter-intuitive of doctors to prescribe a stimulant to calm down the behaviors of hyperactive children but Ritalin has more than 30 years of evidence that it is mostly effective in treating ADHD in children. The specific mechanisms of how this drug actually works inside the brain are still unknown but the most popular theory is that methylphenidate stimulates certain neurons that would instruct the brain to pay attention and stay focused. Thus, the observed benefits of using Ritalin for ADHD are the following:

    • Significant decrease in fidgeting and other signs of restlessness
    • Improved control of fine motor skills, such as handwriting
    • Better management of moods and emotions

    With the above positive effects of Ritalin, the ADHD symptoms can be controlled enough to help a child develop self-esteem, create friendships and relationships, and demonstrate better academic performance. But Ritalin should not be prescribed for every case of ADHD and ADD.

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    Side Effects of Ritalin

    The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has classified the methylphenidate of Ritalin as a Schedule II Controlled Substance. This means that its medical uses have severe restrictions. Most doctors will prescribe Ritalin ADHD only when the child or patient exhibits severe ADHD symptoms and only when the child is older than six years old. Ritalin has never been approved for children who are younger than six years old. Even when the doctor or counselor would suggest the use of this ADHD medicine, the decision to use Ritalin is still the sole responsibility of the parent. The parent has the right to refuse Ritalin. But when the parent chooses to use Ritalin, there will be a series of forms that must be filled out by parents and teachers to monitor the side effects of this drug. Some of the known side effects of Ritalin are:

    • Insomnia
    • Headache
    • Decreased appetite
    • Nausea
    • Blurry vision

    When any of the above symptoms and other dubious behaviors are observed, the use of Ritalin should be reevaluated.

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    Ritalin Abuse

    Unfortunately, despite DEA warnings and the risks of Ritalin side effects, there appears to be a dramatic rise of the use of this ADHD medicine. What could be the meaning of this sudden increase of Ritalin use? One explanation is that the use of Ritalin is catching up with high incidence of ADHD. Another explanation is that this ADHD drug is used even with the most minor behavioral problems that are not even caused by ADHD. The latter is the concern of many parents.

    The DEA also cautions that the rise of Ritalin use is parallel to the increase of cases of Ritalin abuse. In fact, Ritalin ADHD has street names, such as Vitamin R, Smarties, Pineapple, Kiddy-Cocaine, and Kibbles & Bits. The National Drug Intelligence Center of the Department of Justice explains that the drug abusers obtain this ADHD medicine from legitimate sources. Students who are undergoing ADHD treatment would easily share this drug with their classmates. Since the chemical structure of Ritalin is similar to cocaine, the results of abuse are also similar.

    Thus consider the pros and cons of using Ritalin before making a decision. Parents should also take into account the following:

    • The severity of ADHD and if the behavioral problems can be controlled by other means.
    • Ways to prevent Ritalin abuse by the child and by the child's friends and classmates.
    • Consider using multiple approaches in dealing with ADHD symptoms.
    • Ritalin does not cure ADHD and may lead to dependency.