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Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) causes persistent symptoms of restlessness, concentration problems and impulsive behaviour. “I call it the ‘hungry brain’”, says Dr Max Davie, a neurodevelopmental paediatrician specialising in ADHD and the co-founder of the charity ADHDUK.

“It is a condition where the brain is always looking for stimulation, movement, and emotion,” says Dr Davie. “A person with ADHD struggles to keep control of their brain and stop it from wandering off.”

Medication is the main treatment and figures from NHS Business Service Authority for 2022/23 show that prescriptions for drugs to control ADHD symptoms have risen by 32 per cent in adults and 12 per cent in children since 2015/16. Diagnoses have risen and additional manufacturing problems have led to shortages of ADHD medication in the UK and globally. 

An estimated 2.2 million people have ADHD in England, and 2.6 million in the UK according to estimates from the charity ADHDUK.

Dr Ulrich Müller-Sedgwick, a consultant psychiatrist and Royal College of Psychiatrists ADHD champion, says figures show that 230,000 people were receiving ADHD medication at the end of 2023. 

Yet “ADHD is still being underdiagnosed,” says Dr Müller-Sedgwick. “This is still only 0.5 per cent of the population, when ADHD is estimated to affect 7.5 per cent of children and 3.5 per cent in adults.”

Does medication cure ADHD?

Unfortunately, there’s no cure for ADHD, but medication can help control or moderate some of the symptoms so people feel calmer and more in control, better organised, less impulsive and more able to concentrate.

Types of ADHD medication

There are two main types of ADHD medication used to manage symptoms in children and adults: stimulants, which are controlled drugs, and non-stimulants.

“With stimulants you need to start patients on a low dose and gradually increase it until you control their symptoms,” says Dr Davie. “They are one of the most effective psychoactive drugs we have available to us and will have a clinical effect in between two thirds and three quarters of children and young people.”

The dosage of stimulants is also increased gradually for adults with ADHD. “We try to find the point where the patient finds the maximum benefit and minimal side effects,” explains Dr Müller-Sedgwick.

Non-stimulant medication for ADHD works on different brain chemicals and areas of the brain to improve attention span and should be started at a low dose and gradually increased.


There are three types of stimulants prescribed for ADHD:

  • Methylphenidate is the most commonly prescribed ADHD drug and the first line drug treatment for children aged five and over and adults recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice).Brand names include Ritalin, Concerta, Delmosart, Equasym and Medikinet.
  • Lisdexamfetamine is also a first line treatment for adults, but can be prescribed for children age five and over and adolescents if they have tried methylphenidate for at least six weeks and it hasn’t worked for them. Brand names include Elvanse and Vyvanse.
  • Dexamfetamine can be prescribed for children aged five to 17 if they are responding to lisdexamfetamine, but can’t tolerate the longer term action of the drug and also for those who haven’t responded to methylphenidate. Brand names include Amfexa.


  • Atomoxetine is a noradrenaline reuptake inhibitor, and can increase attention span. Nice recommends it for children and adults who haven’t responded or can’t tolerate methylphenidate or lisdexamfetamine. The brand name is Strattera.
  • Guanfacine targets a part of the brain governing attention span and it also reduces blood pressure. It is recommended by Nice for children aged six to 17 if they can’t tolerate or haven’t responded to methylphenidate or lisdexamfetamine. It may be prescribed for adults in some circumstances. The brand name is Intuniv.

How does ADHD medication work in the brain?

“Stimulants work by increasing levels of two neurotransmitters in the brain called dopamine and noradrenaline. If you have ADHD you have low levels of both and stimulants restore the levels to normal,” says Dr Müller-Sedgwick.

Non-stimulants work in different ways, including increasing levels of noradrenaline, a chemical messenger in the brain, which helps you stay focused and alert.

Benefits of medication

Stimulants may improve the following, says Dr Müller-Sedgwick:

  • Attention span
  • Reduce hyperactivity
  • Control impulsive behaviour
  • Help people be more organised

“Not everyone with ADHD needs medication, but for those who do, the benefits can be enormous,” Dr Müller-Sedgwick notes. “It can mean people go back to work, concentrate better, or sit exams, and have a more organised family life.

Side effects of medication

  • Increase in blood pressure and heart rate
  • Reduction in appetite
  • Headaches
  • Abdominal pain

“Stimulants are very potent medicines and they work if prescribed appropriately,” explains Dr Müller-Sedgwick.“But they can have side effects, including increasing blood pressure and increased heart rate.” This is why they are closely monitored and are not prescribed to people with heart conditions, and those with a family history of cardiac disease may have an ECG before they start on them.

“They can also reduce appetite if the dose is too high, so people can lose weight while they are taking them, which is why they are regularly checked.”

In children initially, the side effects of stimulants and non-stimulants in the first few weeks can include headache, abdominal pain, irritability and grumpiness, says Dr Davie.

“But these symptoms tend to get better after the first six weeks. After that point the main side effect we look out for is appetite suppression from stimulants, so we keep a close eye on their height/weight ratio. Most children and young adults are able to tolerate the side effects though.”

How can I be prescribed medication?

To be prescribed ADHD drugs you need to be diagnosed by an ADHD specialist and meet the criteria for ADHD. “The drugs are prescribed according to strict Nice guidelines to those who meet international diagnostic criteria for ADHD,” says Dr Müller-Sedgwick.


Your GP is the first step towards getting a diagnosis. They can assess you or your child and refer you to an ADHD specialist if appropriate (this could be a psychiatrist, psychologist, specialist mental health nurse or paediatrician). 

“There has to be a clear aim of treatment. Stimulant drugs are controlled drugs, so are strictly controlled,” says Dr Müller-Sedgwick.

Private clinics 

“The same rules apply in private practice: you still have to meet the criteria and prescribing is tightly controlled,” Dr Müller-Sedgwick continues.

If you have a private assessment, it may sometimes be tricky getting care and drugs prescribed in the private sector transferred over to NHS care, says Dr Davie. However, you can contact your local NHS ADHD service and ask for their requirements for accepting a private assessment.

Additional and complementary therapies

Although medication is the main treatment for ADHD, it’s usually combined with other therapies, including behaviour management support, parent education programmes and social skills training.  


Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a talking therapy, which can help people change the way they think, isn’t thought to be that helpful in children with ADHD, Dr Davie explains. 

“It isn’t necessarily a condition where CBT skills will help, when you are in a double history lesson and bored out of your mind. 

“There is an exception, though, for CBT for adolescents where you have tried medication and failed to control their symptoms. We are also waiting on data to see if group CBT may be helpful.”

Nice recommends it as a complementary method of support for adults.


Mindfulness is learning how to pay attention to the present moment to improve your mental wellbeing.

“People with ADHD often have a racing mind,” says Dr Müller-Sedgwick, “so they may find mindfulness difficult, but other activities could have a calming effect instead. 

“I ask patients in my clinics what calms them down in the evenings: it could be exercise or listening to a podcast. What we don’t want them to be doing is using alcohol or sleeping pills.”

Exercise and lifestyle

Nice guidance on ADHD says a healthy lifestyle, including eating a good diet and taking plenty of exercise, are recommended for people with ADHD. Restricting diet or taking supplements is not recommended. 

Instead, parents should keep a food diary if they suspect a particular food is an issue. If a clear link is established they should be referred to a dietitian. 

Dr Davie says exercise can be helpful for ADHD, and has a calming effect immediately after activity, but won’t cure it. “We’re talking about being active and moving, you don’t necessarily have to go to the gym.”

A study published in the journal Behavioural Sciences in 2023, by researchers from King’s College London, found that as little as 10 minutes of cycling or so-called mind-body hatha yoga (a slower variety), may be beneficial for adults with ADHD, reducing their impulsivity, but they didn’t improve other symptoms.

Help and support with ADHD treatment in the UK

 Sources of information and support for people with ADHD include:

Do you think you may suffer from ADHD and live in Florida, California or New York?

If so, please consider scheduling a proper virtual online ADHD and Anxiety diagnosis with one of our physicians. Although we have an online ADHD and Anxiety diagnosis tool, a proper diagnosis from a Board-Certified Medical Doctor will help you know for sure. If appropriate, a customized treatment program will be recommended at the conclusion of that initial visit.

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