ADHD News & Research

Study: ADHD Likely More Prevalent in Elite Athletes

Data suggests that ADHD is more common among elite athletes, however lingering stigma and concerns about using stimulant medication may actually mean the prevalence is underreported — and many professional athletes are not receiving the treatment they need.

June 4, 2019

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD) impacts roughly 5% of adults in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among professional athletes in Major League Baseball, this number is significantly higher. According to published data, 8.4% of MLB players received Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) from the league for taking an ADHD stimulant medication in the 2017-2018 season. Assuming not all players with ADHD use medication to manage their symptoms, the percentage of athletes with symptoms could be even higher.

This finding comes from a review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine1 that also reported that roughly 7% of elite college athletes were taking stimulant medication, suggesting that the MLB (the only professional sports league to report TUEs) is not unique.

These findings were determined as part of a systematic review of existing literature on the symptoms and effects of ADHD on elite athletes. Research on the performance of and treatment options for athletes with ADHD is lacking compared to studies of the general ADHD population. Researchers suggested this dearth of research may stem from lingering stigma against mental health assessment and barriers to treatment with stimulant medication among elite athletes, which makes it difficult to estimate the actual prevalence of ADHD in this population. Because stimulants can be misused for performance enhancement, it is important that nutritionists and sports physicians work together to help elite athletes manage their ADHD, they said.

The authors surmised that, especially in baseball and basketball, ADHD symptoms may benefit athletes’ performance. For instance, “hyperfocusing” may allow them to block out distractions and impulsivity can help them make quick decisions. Participating in sports can also alleviate negative ADHD symptoms by providing an outlet for emotions and stress.

Researchers concluded that more research is needed about the impact of ADHD on elite athletes since the management of the condition may have important effects on safety and performance.

View Article Sources

Han DH, McDuff D, Thompson D, et al. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in elite athletes: a narrative review. British Journal of Sports Medicine (May 2019).