Ritalin: ADHD Medication Uses, Dosage, and Side Effects

Ritalin (methylphenidate) is the most commonly prescribed medication used to treat ADHD and ADD. Learn how it controls symptoms, plus its uses, dosages, side effects, and potential risks and benefits. Required reading for parents and adults with attention deficit.

Woman with ADHD holding ritalin pills in palm
Woman with ADHD holding ritalin pills in palm

What is Ritalin?

Ritalin is a brand name of methyphenidate, the most commonly prescribed medication for attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). Although technically not an amphetamine, methylphenidate is a stimulant. Methylphenidate was introduced in 1956.

How is Ritalin used to treat ADHD? Is it effective?

Ritalin has been approved for use in patients age 6 years and older for the treatment of ADHD. In some cases, it may be prescribed for children younger than age 6 who are diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

How does Ritalin work to treat ADD?

Exactly how methyphenidate works is still not understood. Most experts agree that it affects the midbrain, the part of the brain that controls impulses. Methylphenidate most likely changes the balance of chemicals in the brain, so that it can more selectively respond to impulses.

[Free Download: The Ultimate Guide to ADHD Medication]

Researchers at Duke University reported a link between Ritalin and serotonin, a naturally occurring chemical in the brain appears to inhibit behavior and activity. The Duke study seems to indicate that ADHD symptoms may be reduced by raising the level of Serotonin in the brain. An abstract of the research article is available online from PubMed.

Is there any difference between Ritalin and the generic methylphenidate?

Chemically, the two are identical. No difference in effectiveness has been shown to exist. However, there are reports from patients with ADD who seem to feel that there is a difference between the two. These patients claim that name brand Ritalin is more effective for them or their child than the generic version. These claims, however, have not been validated through any clinical trials or other research. Whether these differences are caused by the medications or by a placebo effect among patients is unclear. Other patients report finding no difference and use methylphenidate as their medication of choice.

What are the side effects of methylphenidate or Ritalin?

Some side effects may go away during treatment as your body adjusts to the medicine. However, check with your doctor if any of the following side effects continue or are bothersome:

More common: Loss of appetite; nervousness; trouble in sleeping

Less common: Dizziness; drowsiness; headache; nausea; stomach pain

[Self-Test: Could You Have Adult ADHD or ADD?]

Check with your doctor as soon as possible of any of the following side effects occur:

More Common: Fast hearbeat (tachycardia); increased blood pressure

Less Common: Black, tarry stools; blood in urine of stools; chest pain; fever; joint pain; pinpoint red spots on skin; skin rash or hives; uncontrolled movements of the body; unusual bleeding or bruising

Rare: Blurred vision or any change in vision; uncontrolled vocal outbursts and tics (uncontrolled and repeated body movements)

With long-term use or at high doses: Mood or mental changes; loss of appetite and unwanted reduction in body mass

Symptoms of overdose: Agitation; confusion (severe); convulsions (seizures); dryness of mouth or mucous membranes; false sense of well-being; fast, pounding, or irregular heartbeat; fever; headache (severe); increased blood pressure; increased sweating; large pupils; muscle twitching; overactive relexes; seeing, hearing, or feeling things that are not there; trembling or tremors; vomiting

[Ritalin Redux]

Does Ritalin affect a child’s growth?

Research from the University of Iowa found that Ritalin does not affect the final adult height of children who use the medication. This study confirms research from as early as 1976 on the growth of children taking methylphenidate and other medications used to treat ADHD. A 1988 study also found that methylphenidate does not compromise final adult height.

One reason for this association between medication use and the growth of children may be answered by a study that showed the possibility of ADHD-associated growth delays . Research conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston reported that changes in expected growth rates appear to be caused by ADHD and not its treatment.

Although Ritalin does not appear to effect final height, researchers warn that clinicians should monitor the growth of hyperactive children who are taking methylphenidate and consider dosage reduction in individual cases should evidence of growth suppression occur.

[Read: How to Manage Side Effects in Kids]