Margaret V. Austin, Ph.D., edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.
ADHD medication is hailed by many as a game changer. There can be no question that many people experience a dramatic improvement in the quality of their lives. Still, all medications have some risk. The same is true of ADHD medications. The question remains, do the benefits outweigh these risks? Stated differently, we must balance those risks against the risk of doing nothing at all. We know that not treating ADHD has its own serious long-term effects. These include: increased risk of school failure, relationship difficulties, conflict with authorities, and participation in other risky behavior. Thus, the risks of medication use must be compared to the risks of not taking medication.
Stimulant medications have been prescribed for ADHD for more than 40 years. During that time, research studies have consistently demonstrated these drugs are highly effective and safe. Several studies have compared medicated children with non-medicated children receiving behavioral therapy. The largest of these, called the MTA (or Multi-Modal Treatment Study of ADHD), treated nearly 600 children in the late 1990s for 14 months (MTA Study, 2009). ADHD symptoms were significantly more reduced in those children treated with stimulant medication than in those children treated with behavioral therapy alone. However, the most powerfully effective method was a combination of medication and therapy.
Another benefit of stimulant medications is that they are short-acting. As such, they do not remain in the body for very long. No matter the frequency or dosage that a child takes, the medication is cleared from his system by the time he wakes up in the morning. Likewise, the medications stop working once the child stops taking them. This means that any side-effects, like loss of appetite or trouble sleeping, also stop. The fact that the medication so quickly exits the body is an advantage in terms of reducing side-effects, and minimizing the long-term consequences. As mentioned in the risk section, the long term consequences of ADHD medication are not yet fully understood.