Managing Medications

10 ADHD Medication Fallacies Even Doctors Believe

Optimal dosage is pegged to weight. Afternoon stimulants disrupt sleep. Adderall causes high blood pressure. And other falsehoods about ADHD medication that may put your treatment plan at risk.

Adderall dosage: Doctor holding pill bottle up to face with ADHD medication inside it
Doctor holding pill bottle up to face with ADHD medication inside it

Medically Reviewed by William Dodson, M.D., a member of ADDitude’s ADHD Medical Review Panel

Janet recalls with a shudder the first time she took medication as a treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD). “I was glued to the sofa, unable to move for two days,” says the 37-year-old mother of two, and a marketing manager for a Silicon Valley software company. “I looked and felt like a zombie. It scared me off ADHD medication.”

When Janet later attended a local adult ADHD discussion group, she learned that some people who reported great results from taking medication said it took weeks for most patients to tolerate the Adderall dosage the doctor had prescribed her — and that many were taking half that amount. “I should have educated myself first, instead of trusting the physician,” Janet says.

Janet’s experience is becoming less common. Increasingly, physicians are learning how to use medication to treat adults with ADHD, although many adults still encounter professionals who make serious medication mistakes like those listed below, including psychiatrists who claim special expertise.

“You might call adult ADHD an ‘orphan’ disorder,” says Margaret Weiss, M.D., Ph.D., a preeminent ADHD clinician scientist, based in Vancouver, British Columbia. “That’s because most professionals with the expertise to recognize and treat ADHD work in child services; they are not working in adult centers or seeing adults.”

The bottom line for adults with ADHD is: Be a smart health-care consumer, and learn as much as you can about ADHD medication before you start taking it. The Canadian Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Resource Alliance (CADDRA), a coalition of ADHD experts, has created comprehensive treatment guidelines for patients, parents, and physicians. The practice guidelines, including charts of medications, are available as a free download on CADDRA.ca. My own book, Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.? Stopping the Roller Coaster When Someone You Love Has Attention Deficit Disorder is another good source.

In the meantime, if your prescribing physician makes any of the following 10 statements, share a copy of the CADDRA guidelines with her and talk things over, or find a new doctor.

[Self-Test: ADHD Myth or ADHD Reality? Check the Facts About ADHD]

1. “My adult ADHD patients do best on this stimulant medication.”

Physicians who “play favorites” with stimulant medications — the first-line treatment for ADHD — don’t have an empirical basis for doing so, and are gambling with your chances of success. Here’s why.

There are two major classes of stimulant medications: methylphenidate, or MPH (Ritalin, Focalin, Concerta, Daytrana, and others), and amphetamine, or AMP (Dexedrine, Adderall, Vyvanse, and others). The MPH class works best for some people who have been diagnosed with ADHD, but has no effect, or a negative effect, on others. The same is true for the AMP class. There is no way to predict how you will respond to each class until you try it.

Physician and ADHD specialist Patricia Quinn, M.D., suggests trying both classes of stimulants (MPH and AMP) before deciding that stimulants won’t work for you and moving on to a nonstimulant medication: “You might even try several meds within the same class before switching to another stimulant class.” For example, Ritalin LA and Concerta are both long-acting medications in the same class (MPH). Due to their different delivery mechanisms, however, each brings different results.

2. “For an adult of your height and weight, we start with this dosage.”

An optimal dosage of ADHD medication is not related to a person’s height or weight.

[Free Download: 7 Myths About ADHD… Debunked!]

3. “This is an average starting dose for adults with ADHD.”

There is no “average starting dose.” The choice depends on many factors, including:

  • Your history of taking stimulant medications. Those who have taken stimulants in the past might be less response-sensitive than people who have not.
  • Genetic differences — some people metabolize the medication more quickly than others.
  • Co-existing conditions — anxiety or a mood disorder, for example, and their current treatments.

4. “We’ll increase the dosage to 10 mg in two weeks.”

Just as a professional cannot predict which medication will work best, or at which starting dose, he also cannot predict an optimal dosage goal. The optimal dosage is identified by a method called titration: carefully increasing the dosage over time, until side effects outweigh benefits, and then dialing down to the previous dosage. The approach should always be “Start Low, Titrate Slow.”

5. “So, how’s that ADHD medication working out for you?”

Judging a medication’s effectiveness requires more than a physician asking, “How are you doing?” It requires at least two steps:

  • Taking careful inventory of the challenges you face (writing them down, one by one), before you started medication
  • Regularly reviewing each challenge as treatment progresses, in order to track improvement (or not), worsening symptoms, or new side effects.

During this titration phase, experts recommend talking with your physician weekly and using an ADHD medication tracking log like this. In-office visits should take place every three to four weeks, to review side effects, physical health, patient and family well-being, and other therapies, when indicated.

Many experts and patients report that not enough physicians closely monitor medications used in adults. “It’s critically important to do, but the utter paucity of clinicians doing it is shocking,” says psychologist Stephen Hinshaw, Ph.D., a leading ADHD researcher and professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. “You can’t notice small improvements or side effects without a monitoring sheet.”

Weiss recommends using rating scales that measure a broad range of symptoms and functioning; in other words, a metric for tracking how you’re doing in life. The Weiss Functional Impairment rating scale is a good place to start. Having a tangible method for observing change makes the target concrete and keeps it in focus.

6. “You should see a huge improvement in ADHD symptoms right away.”

Research tells us a lot about overall stimulant efficacy, but we cannot tell how it will affect any particular individual. That’s because clinical trials are:

  • Conducted in controlled settings
  • Done with patients who have no co-existing conditions (a rarity among adults with ADHD)
  • Very brief in duration (usually ending before side effects can develop).

The potential positive effects of medical treatment for ADHD shouldn’t be oversold, Weiss warns. “It’s true that some symptoms may improve dramatically in days, or even in hours. But it is important to wait to judge the full effect of the medication, because it can take some time for all the data to accrue.”

As you face challenging situations in your life, you can gauge how your responses differ from those in the past. “It can also take time to notice the differences in how people are reacting to you, or to evaluate changes in how efficient or how much better you’ve become at your job,” she says.

Weiss offers these guidelines:

  • Symptoms tend to improve within hours after taking stimulant medications. It can take a few days to fully appreciate the changes that have taken place.
  • Non-stimulants take approximately five days to go into effect after dosage changes, and it often takes six to eight weeks for benefits to fully develop for medications like atomoxetine.
  • Functioning improves within months.
  • Developmental changes happen over years. For example, the individual who never had a friend can now make and keep them. An adult who could not keep a job can now hold onto one for a year.

7. “If the stimulant disrupts your sleep, we will have to switch you to a nonstimulant.”

The causes of sleep problems among adults with ADHD are multi-faceted, and poorly understood by most physicians. Increasingly, research is pointing to neurophysiological differences in circadian rhythm, the inner biological clock that tells us when to go to sleep. Yet there are other ADHD-related obstacles to sleep, such as being unable to “put the brakes on” a chatty brain.

In evaluating a stimulant’s apparent adverse effect on sleep, it’s important to pay attention to timing. Perhaps sleep problems are caused by the rebound from the medication’s wearing off. In that case, you should try taking the medication earlier in the day, or taking a nap midday while the full dose is in effect. A no-risk trial nap can help to demonstrate that the medication is not causing the sleep disturbance, but rather the ADHD itself, and lack of medication in the rebound period. Some people with ADHD sleep better on a stimulant; such medications stop “brain noise” and increase focus on going to sleep and staying asleep.

8. “Sure, continue consuming caffeine, if you like.”

Many adults with ADHD have lifelong love affairs with coffee or caffeinated sodas. Yet caffeine may exacerbate the effect of stimulant medications, creating anxiety and heart palpitations. You can’t determine what’s causing these side effects — the stimulant or the caffeine — unless you gradually wean yourself off caffeine before starting stimulants. (Try to do it a few days in advance, though, so that you don’t mistake a headache due to caffeine deprivation for a medication side effect.)

“Some people can tolerate stimulants and still have some caffeine,” Weiss says. “For others, caffeine interferes by creating or exacerbating side effects, making it impossible to increase the stimulant to therapeutic doses.”

9. “Adderall and high blood pressure are linked.”

An adult should have a thorough physical before starting any new medication, and adults with ADHD should have their blood pressure and heart rate checked before beginning, and periodically during, treatment.

However, Weiss dashes the common myth that hypertension precludes taking ADHD medication: “I would say that it is never a contraindication. You treat the hypertension first. And, in fact, there are medications for ADHD that lower blood pressure.” These include generic guanfacine and its longer-acting brand-name formulation, Intuniv, which can lower both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. These medications are often used as an alternative to, or in conjunction with, stimulants.

10. “If you think that the stimulant has stopped working for you, maybe we should try something else.”

Perhaps the stimulant stopped working for any of several neurobiological reasons. Or could you have forgotten what life was like before you started taking the stimulant?

Adults who are diagnosed with ADHD later in life typically develop the habit of paying attention only to the exciting or new. After a few weeks of experiencing the “novelty” of improved symptoms, it’s easy to forget how far you’ve come. This is another reason for keeping written records of baseline symptoms and of the progress you’ve made. It’s the only way to know if the med is doing its job.

[The Ultimate Guide to ADHD Medication]



Updated on October 11, 2019

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  1. Some of this needs to be taken with a grain of salt. My doctor made some similar comments that I took as encouragement. It is so difficult to find a doctor to help with ADHD. It took me 3 months to find and get an appointment with a Psychologist. I am very grateful Strattera works for me. Not so much with my hyperactivity, but with my racing thoughts. With those under control life is much more enjoyable.

  2. I don’t think I understand the sentiment of this article….to not trust the professionals who went to school for a decade to understand the condition as well as the medication for treatment? I think this is subjective, and based on just one person’s bad experience. Which is unfortunate, but I’ve been having a great experience so far with my physicians as we explore the best treatment for my attention deficit symptoms. With doctors and ADHD patients in my own family, I can surely say everyone is different and will respond differently to treatments. It’s really a trial/error type of process.

  3. This article is spot on, at least for me.

    I live in Canada (where you can’t see a psychatrist without a referral). My family doctor did refer me to a psychiatrist for diagnosis when I said I think I have add however, the psychiatrist left it up to the family doctor to prescribe and monitor medication.

    This family doctor doesn’t log anything, just quickly askes how I’m feeling sometimes. Then when I said I think my 18mg concerta dose is not enough and want to try 27, his attitude was if 18 isn’t enough then we need to big or go home and put me up to 36 which seemed too much. After not finding a concerta dose that works, (finally tried 27mg). I might ask to try ritalin or adderall. I just hope he can prescribe those properly.

    The bottom line is, Just because you may have a competent doctor in prescribing ADD meds, doesn’t mean everyone else does.

  4. An excellent article.

    My only quibble is that it might have been prefaced with a sympathetic nod to the bulk of specialists doing their level best to help people, albeit imperfectly. That said, too many clinicians succumb to a swag of cognitive biases and assorted other very human flaws that can make for some pretty crappy judgement. Most are too damn busy and don’t have the time to keep up to date with the latest research. Sadly, some don’t care enough to make the time, or deal with the things that skew their judgement, or just don’t have a knack for the fuzzy, human side of medicine. Nobody’s perfect.

    A little while ago, I worked for a national college of physicians on a programme to promote what’s sometimes called ‘right care’, i.e. avoiding the over-use of medical advice, treatment, and procedures for which there is little good evidence of cost-effective benefit and/or a real risk of harm, and the under-use of the best, evidence-based medicine. (There’s now a stack of research on this and what drives clinicians to make bad or ‘low-value’ calls, e.g. https://www.thelancet.com/series/right-care, https://evolve.edu.au/evolve-research, etc.) Together, these clinical behaviours mount up to big costs worldwide—costs to our personal health, wellbeing and bank balance, not to mention an enormous and unnecessary toll on the public purse. Here in Australia, an estimated 20–30% of patients receive care that is unnecessary, ineffective or potentially harmful. And, according to Boston Consulting Group, government and the private sector spend around A$30 billion each year on low-value care. Even in the US, which boasts the world’s best medical care (highly debatable!), doctors are still making basic medical mistakes. For instance, up to 90% of antibiotic prescriptions are for mostly viral upper respiratory tract infections. (Happy to supply references if people are keen to dig deeper.)

    How do we turn this around? First, we (doctors and patients) need to admit we have a shared problem. And it turns out one of the most effective ways to start dealing with it is to empower patients with solid, understandable, evidence-based advice. Something ADDitude magazine does in spades. Good job, folks!

    But I digress…

    I recently got my formal ADHD diagnosis. (Yay me! :-/ ) I had already done a lot of my homework, for which this site proved immensely useful (thanks again!). I’ve an excellent relationship with my GP, who, at my request, packed me off to a psychiatrist who knows a thing or two about adult ADHD. I found the her to be a lovely person, very professional, and with none of the god syndrome one too often sees in medical specialists. A warm, no-nonsense professional who, I’m happy to say, treated me like an adult and appeared to listen to my concerns and questions. So, 10/10 for bedside manner.

    But… As lovely as my psychiatrist is, she is also human. And one or two things about our first appointment still irk me, and a couple of them are on this list. One that isn’t: she remarked that I could use the medications (Dexamphetamine and Clonidine) ‘as needed’. This is something that very much appeals to me; the last thing I want is to become overly dependent or outright addicted. I had tried Ritalin before and really didn’t like the side effects, including the kind of see-sawing of emotions and energy.

    Well, silly me. Of course a stimulant medication like Dexedrine isn’t something one can take or not take like a headache tablet. I’m partly to blame, of course. I know enough to have pulled her up on this; I just didn’t have my wits about me. Nerves, I guess. It’s not every day one gets diagnosed with a neurodevelopmental disorder that explains an awful lot about why one’s life is so screwed up. Still, she could have been clearer about the meds and I’ll gently raise it next time. I do feel she’s someone I can work with and it’s hardly a hanging offence, but it is important. And it’s important that she knows I’m a partner in this, not just a patient.

    So, perhaps a good follow-up article to this one (or add a link, if it already exists) might be some tips on how to talk to/work with your clinician(s). You know? How to deal with difficult shrinks, the sorts of questions to ask, when and how to query their judgement respectfully (but firmly), how to establish a good working relationship, how to deal with the trial-and-error drag of finding the right clinician… That sort of thing.

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