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What are side-effects of ADHD medications?

If your child has been diagnosed with ADHD by a medical doctor, he or she might have been prescribed a medication for the condition. Chances are, your child's doctor may have prescribed Ritalin, the most commonly used ADHD medication in the western world.

Although there are several medications prescribed for ADHD, we will focus our article on Ritalin.

Ritalin (or methylphenidate, to use its generic term) is said to be a "mild stimulant" of the central nervous system that is prescribed to chronically distractible, hyperactive, and impulsive children to settle down and concentrate. The word "mild" is a rather ambiguous, as this depends on the dosage administered to the child. But studies have shown that methylphenidate is indeed a stimulant that shares many pharmacological effects of cocaine, amphetamine, and methamphetamine.

According to research done by the DEA in 1995, methylphenidate produces behavioural and psychological effects similar to those of amphetamines, including increases in euphoria and decreases in sedation. Richard DeGrandpre in his book Ritalin Nation quoted a 1995 report from the Archives of General Psychiatry on the similarities between cocaine and Ritalin. The report shows evidence that cocaine, one of the most addictive of abused drugs, has pharmacological effects similar to methylphenidate. To prove this, lab rats and monkeys were administered the same dosages of cocaine and Ritalin and were given the choice to self-administer one of the two drugs. The results reveal that the lab animals did not favour one drug over the other. The DEA report has similar findings: non-primate animals actually choose methylphenidate in favour of cocaine. Even pro-Ritalin psychiatrists like Dr. Edward Hallowell and Dr. John Ratey acknowledges the interchangeable nature of methylphenidate and cocaine. In their book Driven to Distraction, they point out that people with ADHD feel just as focused when they take cocaine as when they take Ritalin.

In other words, Ritalin has the same effect on children as cocaine, amphetamines, and other stimulants on adults. When the methylphenidate kicks in, it sharpens the child's short-term attention span and produces a "crash" when its effects wear off. And just as predictably, children are bound to experience the same side effects as adults when they take in stimulants.

Some of the most common side effects experienced by children who take Ritalin include stunted growth, appetite suppression, and insomnia. These are very counter-productive side-effects. We already now that children with ADHD suffer from vitamins and mineral deficiencies. Loss of appetite will only exacerbate that. Moreover, several studies showed that poor sleep can increase or even mimic symptoms of ADHD. What is the point in trying to reduce symptoms of ADHD with a drug that causes sleep problems, which exacerbate symptoms of ADHD and impair school performance?

There are some more serious side effects of the drugs that have to do with perceptions of reality and even death. Studies have shown that more than 800 children on Ritalin experienced hallucinations of insects and bugs crawling on them, and snakes moving around the room. Worse, in many cases, those hallucinations are then diagnosed as another mental disorder, and the child receives yet another drug, like anti-psychotic medication.

A majority of the students who caused school shootings in America were known to have been taking medically-prescribed mind-altering drugs.

Ritalin is also known to cause death. Between 1990 and 2000, the FDA Med Watch program received 186 death reports related to methylphenidate. Since the year 2000, the FDA Med Watch received 51 more cases of death due to the same causes. It seems that deaths are secondary to what the medication does to the heart. Because of this, the American Heart association now recommends that all children who are prescribed Ritalin and other stimulant medication should go through a physical exam and even an ECG (electrocardiogram) if necessary, before they receive the drug prescription.

If Ritalin was a magic bullet for ADHD, then these risks might well be worth taking. Unfortunately, Ritalin is only a short-term solution for a long-term condition. Besides being ineffective after 3 years, it also produces damaging side effects similar to those found among adult cocaine and amphetamine users. Drugs alone cannot help your child cope with ADHD. What your child needs is a more comprehensive treatment plan that looks beyond a quick fix for your child's brain and behaviour.