The FDA has given instructions that ADHD medication such as Ritalin, Dexedrine and Adderall XR should put up warnings about the possible side effects like heart problems, aggression, and even mania, due to the presence of the stimulant methylphenidate in these medicines. This has made some parents, mental health professionals and occupational therapists to look out for alternative treatments.
Can children with ADHD be brought to normalcy without the medications?
ADHD came into the psychological dictionary in the early 1980s in spite of being identified as early as the 1900s and is related to the Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Around 3-5% of kids are affected by this disorder, mainly boys. It can affect kids even at the age of 2. The disorder becomes obvious when the kids are unable to concentrate and have a tendency to become inattentive and impulsive. 2.5 million kids take medication for ADHD.
Alternative therapies like using tools like weighted vests and blankets, harnessing children to biofeedback machines, treating kids for imbalances of the inner ear and yeast infections -- even hanging youngsters upside down on the monkey bars and encouraging them to chew gum to burn off energy, have been tried by parents for years.
Diet alterations and herbal remedies are recommended by Lowell psychologist Stephen Fisher for those who don't want to go for ADHD medications.
"Specifically, getting high fructose corn syrup out of the diet, caffeine out of the diet, and if you want to go a little further, taking flour and sugar out," said Fisher, who, while a proponent of drug therapy, worries about side effects. "We're not talking a huge sample, but I've gotten positive results with people. And while that's generally not going to take care of all of the problems, it may lead to some significant improvement."
Physical exercise to fight hyperactivity is also an alternative. Yoga, as a support to kids already stabilized on medication, reduced levels of hyperactivity in boys. This was revealed by a study at the University of Sydney.
"When you do conscious breathing and integrate it with movements, there are physical and chemical changes in the body," said Toni Bradley, owner of Bedford's Serenity Yoga, which offers yoga classes for children. "And in a class with kids that have difficulty focusing, for kids who are hyperactive, yoga can be an effective tool."
However, some scientists argue that supplementation of certain vitamins and mineral is the method to normalize brain function. The effects of both Omega 3 fatty acids and methyl B-12 on kids with ADHD is being studied by Richard Deth, a professor of pharmacology at Northeastern University.
"What we're recognizing is that some of the treatments recommended like this really normalize the biochemistry of the affected organs, and in some cases, it's getting at the root of the problem," said Deth. "It's obvious that Ritalin is effective, but there's the downside that we don't really know about its long-term effects. My personal belief is that (these therapies) will eventually replace the Ritalin."
Chelmsford therapist Szifra Birke's son was diagnosed with ADHD 20 years back. But she did not go for Ritalin. Her son who is now in college learned to self-regulate by doing things like playing basketball, which channeled his excess energy and brought focus.
"I definitely think that for many, many of these kids, medication is the shortest distance between two points," said Birke. "But I think it's a mistake to give medication to kids without doing the foundation-building with parents, which is to really understand how to parent these children, and to understand this disorder. Every kid across the ADD spectrum should have these strategies introduced to them, and practiced well."
Many still believe that, in spite of the recent warnings, drug therapy cannot be replaced by alternative therapies, though they may be effective complement.
"Virtually every family I've worked with is initially averse to the use of stimulants, but it's currently the standard of care," said Concord psychologist Lore Kantrowitz. "But the chance that (alternative therapies are) going to improve their focus or attention or impulsivity, well, that really hasn't been proven. They're out on a limb, but it's not a dangerous limb."
"I guess I've seen the strengths and benefits of meds," added Fisher. "For the 80 percent (of people helped by medications), you go from zero to hitting a home run. People say, 'I feel like myself, finally. It's like a coming home experience. It can help them organize themselves and get a real boost of self-confidence, self-concept."