Better understanding the effects of psychostimulants

All parents wish to make the right decision for their child when it comes to medication. Here is some information about the effects of psychostimulants.

The usefulness of psychostimulants

Psychostimulants are used in children, adolescents, and adults affected by attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which is characterized by different manifestations, including:

  • excessive inattention level
  • hyperactivity, and
  • impulsive behaviours

ADHD can lead to difficulties on several levels: academic, behavioural, relational, and others. Therefore, it is quite normal for parents and people who work with children to look for solutions to promote their well-being and to reach their full potential.

The psychostimulant drug class first includes methylphenidate (better known under one of its commercial names, “Ritalin”), and amphetamines. These drugs act by increasing the chemicals released in the brain called “neurotransmitters” (dopamine, noradrenaline), which make communication between different areas of the brain easier and thus, promote concentration and attention of the person.

Although they are called "psychostimulants", these drugs do not stimulate the child, do not have a euphoric effect, and do not cause dependency.

Therapeutic benefits of psychostimulants

There are various psychostimulants found on the market under different commercial names. Although these drugs are considered equivalent from a treatment perspective, the response to each of them can vary (be more or less favourable) from one person to another.

Psychostimulants can provide a number of benefits, including:

  • increase attention
  • improve a person’s capacity to follow instructions or accomplish tasks
  • reduce impulsivity or aggressiveness
  • improve academic performance, and
  • facilitate family and social relationships

Some psychostimulants have a short duration of action and must be taken more than once a day. However, several others (long duration of action) release a certain amount of the drug throughout the day and the dose taken in the morning remains effective until early evening.

Side effects of psychostimulants

Acquired experience allows us to conclude that the drugs from this class are safe. However, like any other drug, they can cause undesirable effects, which are usually of mild or moderate intensity, short-lived, and reversible. With only a few exceptions, these undesirable effects occur at about the same frequency as with methylphenidate and amphetamines. They can generally be diminished by changing:

  • the dose of the drug
  • the formulation, and
  • the time at which it is taken

Here are some of the most common undesirable effects:

  • loss of appetite and weight
  • insomnia
  • dizziness
  • slowed growth

Your pharmacist can provide information about the possible side effects and explain how to prevent or manage them.

Parents sometimes worry about the risk of onset of more serious side effects. Fortunately, this only happens very rarely with psychostimulants. Manufacturers indicate, in their respective monograph products, the possible undesirable effects and their frequency. The onset of serious side effects sometimes justifies interruption of treatment and seeking medical attention.

For example, it is preferable to stop treatment and consult a healthcare professional if one of the following effects is manifested:

  • hallucinations
  • changes in behaviour or mood (i.e. aggressiveness, paranoia, depression)
  • suicidal thoughts
  • anxiety
  • epilepsy attacks
  • onset or worsening of tics

Aside from medication

Although the use of psychostimulants is often beneficial, it must not represent the only option. This type of treatment must always be part of a global ADHD treatment program that can also include other measures (psychological, educational, and social). The medical diagnosis of ADHD must be made by a qualified professional (doctor, psychiatrist, psychologist, neuropsychologist, etc.).

Drug therapy is not suitable in all cases. It is often preferable to try other non-pharmacologic measures before considering drug therapy. Additionally, even when pharmacotherapy is initiated, other complementary methods and resources should be considered, for example:

  • psychological support
  • psychosocial counselling
  • psychoeducation
  • occupational therapy
  • remedial instruction
  • parental/family coaching

The decision to use psychostimulants should not be taken lightly. That said, many children reap tangible benefits from them. It is crucial to be well-informed to make the right decision. Your pharmacist it a well-suited healthcare professional to provide you with information on the effects of psychostimulants and the issues associated with them. Moreover, your child will benefit from being followed by a team of competent healthcare professionals, whose expertise is complementary. Each child is unique. This is also true for the treatment modalities that will enable your child to better function and to reach his/her full potential!

To learn more about ADHD, read the following text: Demystifying attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

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Better understanding the effects of psychostimulants

All parents wish to make the right decision for their child when it comes to medication. Here is some information about the effects of psychostimulants.
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