Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

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Synonyms: hyperkinetic disorder, attention deficit disorder (ADD)

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that is more frequent and severe than is typically observed in individuals at a comparable level of development and which interferes with functioning and/or development. 2018 Guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) state that for a diagnosis of ADHD, symptoms of hyperactivity/impulsivity and/or inattention should[1]:

  • Meet the diagnostic criteria in the Fifth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders classification (DSM-5) or the Tenth Revision of the International Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-10). (NB: currently ADHD is not recognised as such in ICD-10 and is termed hyperkinetic disorder, but ICD-11 pre-final version has been released and is expected to be approved in May 2019 and includes ADHD for the first time, with criteria similar to DSM-5[2].)
  • Be associated with at least moderate psychological, social and/or educational or occupational impairment based on interview and/or direct observation in multiple settings
  • Be pervasive, occurring in two or more important settings, including social, familial, educational and/or occupational settings.

The DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for ADHD[3]

People with ADHD show a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development:

  • Inattention: six or more symptoms of inattention for children up to age 16, or five or more for adolescents aged 17 and older and adults; symptoms of inattention have been present for at least six months, and they are inappropriate for developmental level:
    • Often fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork, at work, or with other activities.
    • Often has trouble holding attention on tasks or play activities.
    • Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly.
    • Often does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace (eg, loses focus, becomes sidetracked).
    • Often has trouble organising tasks and activities.
    • Often avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to do tasks that require mental effort over a long period of time (such as schoolwork or homework).
    • Often loses things necessary for tasks and activities (eg, school materials, pencils, books, tools, wallets, keys, paperwork, eyeglasses, mobile telephones).
    • Is often easily distracted
    • Is often forgetful in daily activities.
  • Hyperactivity and impulsivity: six or more symptoms of hyperactivity-impulsivity for children up to age 16, or five or more for adolescents 17 and older and adults; symptoms of hyperactivity-impulsivity have been present for at least six months to an extent that is disruptive and inappropriate for the person's developmental level:
    • Often fidgets with or taps hands or feet, or squirms in seat.
    • Often leaves seat in situations when remaining seated is expected.
    • Often runs about or climbs in situations where it is not appropriate (adolescents or adults may be limited to feeling restless).
    • Often unable to play or take part in leisure activities quietly.
    • Is often 'on the go' acting as if 'driven by a motor'.
    • Often talks excessively.
    • Often blurts out an answer before a question has been completed.
    • Often has trouble waiting his/her turn.
    • Often interrupts or intrudes on others (eg, butts into conversations or games).
  • In addition, the following conditions must be met:
    • Several inattentive or hyperactive-impulsive symptoms were present before age 12 years. (This is set to be 'early to mid-childhood' in ICD-11.)
    • Several symptoms are present in two or more settings, (eg, at home, school or work; with friends or relatives; in other activities).
    • There is clear evidence that the symptoms interfere with, or reduce the quality of, social, school, or work functioning.
    • The symptoms do not happen only during the course of schizophrenia or another psychotic disorder. The symptoms are not better explained by another mental disorder (eg, mood disorder, anxiety disorder, dissociative disorder, or a personality disorder).

Based on the types of symptoms, three kinds (presentations) of ADHD can occur:

  • Combined presentation: if enough symptoms of both criteria inattention and hyperactivity-impulsivity were present for the past six months.
  • Predominantly inattentive presentation: if enough symptoms of inattention, but not hyperactivity-impulsivity, were present for the past six months.
  • Predominantly hyperactive-impulsive presentation: if enough symptoms of hyperactivity-impulsivity but not inattention were present for the past six months.

Because symptoms can change over time, the presentation may change over time as well. (ICD-11 is set to add another two types of presentations: other specified presentation and presentation unspecified.)

  • Globally, ADHD is estimated to affect 5% of children. The prevalence of ADHD is estimated to be around 3-4% of children in the UK.
  • ADHD is most often diagnosed in children aged 3-7 years, but it may not be recognised until later in childhood and sometimes not until adulthood.
  • ADHD is more commonly diagnosed in boys than in girls. The ratio estimates vary but in the UK is thought to be around 3:1. It is thought to be under-recognised in girls and women.
  • The combined presentation subtype is the most common, affecting around a half to three-quarters of affected individuals.

The cause is unknown but there appears to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors involved. Twin studies demonstrate a high inheritability[5]. Those with a first-degree relative with ADHD are more likely to have the condition. Environmental and other risk factors include:

  • Low birth weight and preterm delivery.
  • Maternal smoking or alcohol exposure during pregnancy.
  • Epilepsy.
  • Acquired brain injury.
  • Lead exposure.
  • Iron deficiency.
  • Being in the care of others who are not parents ('looked after').
  • Maternal mental health problems.
  • Substance misuse.
  • The presence of other neurodevelopmental or mental health disorders such as oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder, mood disorders (eg, anxiety and depression), autism spectrum disorder, tic disorders, learning disability and specific learning difficulties.
  • ADHD should be considered in all age groups. Diagnosis should only be made by a specialist psychiatrist, paediatrician or other healthcare professional with training and expertise in the diagnosis of ADHD. Diagnosis should be based on:
    • A full clinical and psychosocial assessment. Discuss behaviour and symptoms in the different domains and settings of the person's everyday life.
    • A full developmental and psychiatric history, and observer reports and an assessment of mental state.
    • Rating scales such as Strengths and Difficulties questionnaires or the Conners' rating scale may be used by those with expertise, and may also be useful for monitoring, but should not be used alone to make a diagnosis.
  • An assessment should include an assessment of the person's needs, co-existing conditions, social, familial and educational or occupational circumstances and physical health. For children and young people there should also be an assessment of their parents' or carers' mental health.
  • Determine the severity of behavioural and/or attention problems suggestive of ADHD and how they affect the child or person and their parents/carers where relevant. Assess impact on their life. For example:
    • For children: ability to make/keep friends, school achievement, family relationships; ability to eat/self-care/travel independently; ability to avoid common hazards (crossing road safely, etc); emotional state.
    • For adolescents and adults: ability to avoid criminal activity and substance misuse and dangerous driving; ability to make and keep relationships, school or occupational function and achievement; ability to organise daily activities.
  • A number of conditions can have symptoms similar to ADHD, including:
    • Thyroid disease.
    • Anxiety.
    • Depression.
    • Bipolar disorder.
    • Autistic Spectrum Disorder.
    • Personality disorders.
    • Oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder.
    • Tic disorders.
    • Fetal alcohol syndrome.
    • Substance use disorders.
  • Steroids, antihistamines, anticonvulsants, beta-agonists, caffeine, and nicotine can also have adverse effects that mimic ADHD symptoms.
  • The NICE guideline notes that girls and women are more likely to be mis-diagnosed with another mental health condition or neurodevelopmental disorder[1].

Referral

  • In children and young people, if the problems are having an adverse impact on development or family life, consider:
    • Watchful waiting for up to ten weeks. (If the problems are associated with severe impairment, refer directly to secondary care.)
    • Offering referral to a group-based ADHD-focused support; this should not wait for a formal diagnosis of ADHD.
    • If the problems persist with at least moderate impairment, specialist referral is needed to confirm the diagnosis and to start management. Referral may be to a specialist paediatrician, a child psychiatrist, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).
  • Adults presenting with symptoms of ADHD who do not have a childhood diagnosis of ADHD, should be referred for assessment by a mental health specialist trained in the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD, where there is evidence of typical manifestations of ADHD (hyperactivity/impulsivity and/or inattention) that:
    • Began during childhood and have persisted throughout life.
    • Are not explained by other psychiatric diagnoses (although there may be other co-existing psychiatric conditions); and
    • Have resulted in or are associated with moderate or severe psychological, social and/or educational or occupational impairment.
  • Adults who have previously been treated for ADHD as children or young people and present with problematic symptoms suggestive of continuing ADHD should be referred to general adult psychiatric services for assessment.
  • Do not diagnose or start medication for ADHD in children and young people in primary care.

General principles of management

  • Parents and affected children need a great deal of explanation and support. There is a great deal of unproven advice available for parents and it is very important that time be taken to explain properly and to discuss the diagnosis and appropriate treatments.
  • Give people with ADHD and their families written information about self-help, support groups, and voluntary organisations, as appropriate. These include:
  • A structured discussion from a specialist professional is important for many reasons including:
    • Stressing the positive aspects of the diagnosis (accessing help, understanding the issues and symptoms) as well as acknowledging the negative aspects such as stigma.
    • Discussing potential effects of ADHD.
    • Discussing education or employment issues.
    • Discussing effects on relationships.
    • Explaining the potential effect on driving.
    • Offering advice on appropriate sources of information.
    • Offering advice about consistent behaviour management and parenting skills and explaining that any recommendation of parent-training/education does not imply bad parenting, but that extra parenting skills are needed for children and young people with ADHD.
    • Asking about goals, preferences for treatment, concerns and worries.
    • Forming an individualised shared treatment plan.
  • With consent, liaison with school/college/university is helpful. Modifications can be made to the learning environment to optimise it for the individual with ADHD.
  • Stress the value of a balanced diet, good nutrition and regular exercise for children and young people with ADHD.
  • Eliminating artificial colouring and additives from the diet is not recommended as a generally applicable treatment for ADHD.
  • Dietary fatty acid supplements are not recommended for the treatment of ADHD.
  • Advise parents or carers to keep a diary if there are foods or drinks that appear to affect behaviour. If the diary supports a link between any foods or drinks and behaviour, offer referral to a dietician. Further management (such as elimination of specific foods) should be jointly undertaken by the dietician, mental health specialist or paediatrician, and the family.

Pharmacological management

  • All medication for ADHD should only be initiated by a healthcare professional with training and expertise in diagnosing and managing ADHD. It should always form part of a comprehensive treatment plan that includes psychological, behavioural and educational advice and interventions.
  • Medication is usually not recommended for pre-school children with ADHD, for whom an ADHD-focused group parent-training programme is normally recommended first-line.
  • For school-age children and young people with ADHD, treatment with medication should be reserved for those with ADHD symptoms causing persisting significant impairment in at least one domain despite implementation of other management options such as environmental modifications, ADHD-focused support and education, parenting strategies, and liaison with school or college, where consent is given.
  • For adults with symptoms causing significant impact, medication is usually recommended first-line.
  • Where pharmacological treatment is considered appropriate, methylphenidate is generally offered first-line, with lisdexamfetamine, dexamfetamine, and atomoxetine, as alternatives if methylphenidate is contra-indicated, not tolerated, or ineffective.
  • Baseline physical assessment before starting medication should include:
    • Pulse.
    • Blood pressure.
    • Weight and height (plotted on centile charts).
    • Cardiovascular assessment (and referral to cardiology if any personal or family history of relevant cardiac conditions).
    • An ECG should also be considered if treatment could affect the QT interval.
  • 2018 NICE guidance advises the following pathway for medication for children over the age of 5 years, and young people:
    • Methylphenidate (either short- or long-acting) first-line.
    • Consider changing to lisdexamfetamine if a six‑week trial of methylphenidate at an adequate dose has not resulted in sufficient benefit.
    • Consider dexamfetamine if ADHD symptoms are responding to lisdexamfetamine but it is not tolerated.
    • Consider atomoxetine or guanfacine if no response or intolerance of methylphenidate and lisdexamfetamine
  • 2018 NICE guidance advises the following pathway for pharmacological treatment for adults with ADHD:
    • Lisdexamfetamine or methylphenidate may be used as first-line pharmacological treatment.
    • If either is not sufficiently effective after six weeks, consider switching to the other.
    • Consider dexamfetamine where ADHD symptoms are responding to lisdexamfetamine but it is not tolerated.
    • Consider atomoxetine if there is intolerance to lisdexamfetamine or methylphenidate or if symptoms have not responded to separate six-week trials of each.
  • If the above options haven't been successful, a second opinion or tertiary referral is advised. Tertiary services may consider other options or unlicensed treatments such as clonidine or atypical antipsychotics.

Follow-up and monitoring of people on medication

After titration and dose stabilisation, prescribing and monitoring of ADHD medication should be carried out under Shared Care Protocol arrangements with primary care. There should be regular review of efficacy and adverse effects of medication. Adverse effects to ask about include tics, sexual dysfunction (atomoxetine), fainting due to orthostatic hypotension (guanfacine), seizures, sleep, worsening behaviour. Also consider stimulant misuse and diversion.

Physical checks include:

  • Height every six months in children and young people.
  • Weight:
    • Every three months in children aged 10 years and under.
    • At three and six months in children over 10 years of age, then at six-monthly intervals.
    • Every six months in adults.
  • Plot height and weight on centile charts in children and young people. This should be reviewed by the specialist health professional responsible for treatment.
  • Heart rate and blood pressure every six months, and before and after any dose changes.
  • What to look out for (seek advice from specialist if any of the following occurs):
    • Sustained resting tachycardia (>120 bpm).
    • Arrhythmia.
    • Systolic blood pressure greater than the 95th percentile (or a clinically significant increase) measured on two occasions.
    • If a child or young person is not reaching the height expected for their age and centile (a planned break in treatment over school holidays may be required to allow 'catch-up' growth).
    • If other significant adverse effects develop.

Adults prescribed an amfetamine (for example, dexamfetamine or lisdexamfetamine) should be advised they should not drive if they feel drowsy, dizzy, unable to concentrate or make decisions, or if they have blurred or double vision. Adults should also be warned about the legal implications of driving with amfetamines - police may require roadside or blood tests for drug levels. As long as driving is not impaired, and there is evidence they are taking the medication on the advice of a health professional, they will avoid prosecution.

A specialist should review medication at least once a year and discuss with the person taking it (and their parents/carers where appropriate) whether medication should be continued. 

Psychosocial treatments

For pre-school children, an ADHD-focused group parent-training programme is normally recommended first-line. For school aged children, group-based support is offered to parents/carers and/or the child or young person with ADHD. It includes education and information on the causes and impact of ADHD and advice on parenting strategies. With consent, liaison with school, college or university should occur. Individual parent-training programmes for parents and carers of children and young people with ADHD are offered when there are particular difficulties for families in attending group sessions (disability, language differences, learning disability, parental ill health, problems with transport, other factors suggesting poor prospects for therapeutic engagement, complex family needs). 

Teachers who have received training about ADHD and its management should provide behavioural interventions in the classroom to help children and young people with ADHD.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is an option for young people with ADHD who have benefited from medication but whose symptoms are still causing a significant impairment in at least one domain. CBT may be helpful in addressing the following areas:

  • Social skills with peers.
  • Problem-solving.
  • Self-control.
  • Active listening skills.
  • Dealing with and expressing feelings.

Non-pharmacological treatment may be used in adults who choose not to take medication, or in whom it has not been effective or not tolerated. A structured supportive psychological intervention focused on ADHD may be used, with regular follow‑up either in person or by phone. Treatment may involve CBT.

A 2006 meta-analysis of follow-up studies of children with ADHD found that by the age of 25[7]:

  • About 15% continued to have ADHD.
  • 65% had persistence of some symptoms and continuing functional impairment, with psychological, social, or educational difficulties.

Comorbidity may significantly affect prognosis. ADHD is associated with increased prevalence of psychiatric disorders, including oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), conduct disorder, substance abuse, and possibly mood disorders, such as depression and mania. Other conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dyspraxia are also more common in those with ADHD. The person's overall prognosis may therefore depend on the severity and management of any co-existing disorders.

Young people and adults with ADHD may have associated problems - eg, self-harm, a predisposition to road traffic (and other) accidents, substance misuse, delinquency, anxiety states and academic underachievement.

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Further reading and references

  • Bolea-Alamanac B, Nutt DJ, Adamou M, et al; Evidence-based guidelines for the pharmacological management of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: update on recommendations from the British Association for Psychopharmacology. J Psychopharmacol. 2014 Mar28(3):179-203. doi: 10.1177/0269881113519509. Epub 2014 Feb 12.

  • Parker J, Wales G, Chalhoub N, et al; The long-term outcomes of interventions for the management of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in children and adolescents: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Psychol Res Behav Manag. 2013 Sep 176:87-99. doi: 10.2147/PRBM.S49114.

  1. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: diagnosis and management; NICE guideline (March 2018)

  2. Reed GM, First MB, Kogan CS, et al; Innovations and changes in the ICD-11 classification of mental, behavioural and neurodevelopmental disorders. World Psychiatry. 2019 Feb18(1):3-19. doi: 10.1002/wps.20611.

  3. DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria: Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD); Reprinted by Pearson Clinical with permission from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (Copyright © 2013). American Psychiatric Association.

  4. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; NICE CKS, May 2018 (UK access only)

  5. Larsson H, Chang Z, D'Onofrio BM, et al; The heritability of clinically diagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder across the lifespan. Psychol Med. 2014 Jul44(10):2223-9. doi: 10.1017/S0033291713002493. Epub 2013 Oct 10.

  6. Post RE, Kurlansik SL; Diagnosis and management of adult attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Am Fam Physician. 2012 May 185(9):890-6.

  7. Faraone SV, Biederman J, Mick E; The age-dependent decline of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: a meta-analysis of follow-up studies. Psychol Med. 2006 Feb36(2):159-65.

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