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Making Sense Out of the Confusing World of Ritalin

Sharon is at another meeting with her son’s teacher. Aiden’s teacher says he’s unfocused and disruptive in class.

Sharon knows her son behaves the same way at home. Last night’s battle over homework fresh in her mind – and she doesn’t know what to do. Mrs. Miller mentions having Aiden tested for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Sharon leaves the parent-teacher conference feeling scared and unsure. Should she really put her child on drugs? How do they work? What are the benefits? The risks?

If Sharon’s situation sounds all too familiar, then you might be asking the same questions. Here’s a look at what you need to know about stimulant medications.

Cut to the Chase: What is Ritalin?

Ritalin, or methylphenidate, is a nervous-system stimulant. Yes, a drug commonly prescribed for hyperactivity disorder is actually a stimulant. While this seems counter-intuitive, the drug affects the chemicals in the brain, countering the effects of hyperactivity and poor impulse control.

How does it work?

  • Nervous system effects: Ritalin causes a release of chemicals that promote communication within parts of the nervous system. This improved communication has been shown to increase thinking skills and improve performance in children with ADHD.
  • Brain effects: Like all stimulants, Ritalin increases dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine is the brain chemical that affects pleasure, attention and movement. To treat ADHD, doctors often prescribe a low dose of Ritalin, slowly increasing the dosage until an optimal level is reached.

Does Ritalin Have Side Effects?

The short answer is yes, though the severity and frequency varies quite a bit. The most common side effects are:

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • High blood pressure
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Dry mouth
  • Upset stomach/Stomach pain
  • Headaches
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nervousness

In rare instances, Ritalin can also cause abnormal heartbeat, blurred vision, hallucinations, heart attack, brain hemorrhage, hair loss, growth stunting, seizures or stroke.

Can My Teen Abuse It?

Ritalin is similar to cocaine in its chemical make-up. In fact, it’s classified by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as a Schedule II narcotic – the same classification as cocaine. When abused, Ritalin can cause a “rush” or “high” like other stimulants and can be just as addictive.

Because Ritalin is so commonly prescribed, it’s easy to get and fairly cheap. Teens often steal it from a sibling or buy it from peers. In fact, the DEA includes Ritalin on its list of most-stolen medications.

What Should I Do?

As with most ADHD medications, the results vary. Some parents rave about Ritalin; others say it doesn’t help.

So, what’s the answer?

If a doctor recommends Ritalin for your child, be sure to discuss the risks involved and carefully weigh them against the benefits. If you’re still unsure, don’t be shy about getting a second opinion.

Image Source: iStock

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