If you’ve ever wondered how experts make treatment recommendations for patients with ADHD, take a look at this ADHD treatment decision tree that my colleagues and I constructed for our “Primer” about ADHD, http://rdcu.be/gYyV. Although a picture is worth a thousand words, keep in mind that this infographic only gives the bare bones of a complex process. That said, it is telling that one of the first questions an expert asks is if the patient has a comorbid condition that is more severe than ADHD. The rule of thumb is to treat the more severe disorder first and after that condition has been stabilized plan a treatment approach for the other condition. Stimulants are typically the first line treatment due to their greater efficacy compared with non-stimulants. When considering any medication treatment for ADHD, safety is the first concern which is why medical contraindications to stimulants, such as cardiovascular issues or concerns about substance abuse, must be considered. For very young children (preschoolers) family behavior therapy is typically used prior to medication. Clinicians also must deal with personal preferences. Some parents and some adolescents and adults with ADHD simply don’t want to take stimulant medications for the disorder. When that happens, clinicians should do their best to educate them about the costs and benefits of stimulant treatment. If, as is the case for most patients, the doctor takes the stimulant arm of the decision tree, he or she must next decide if methylphenidate of amphetamine is more appropriate. Here there is very little guidance for doctors. Amphetamine compounds are a bit more effective but can lead to greater side effects. Genetic studies suggest that a person’s genetic background provide some information about who will respond well to methylphenidate but we are not yet able to make very accurate predictions. After choosing the type of stimulant, the doctor must next consider what duration of action is appropriate for each patient. There is no simple rule here; the choice will depend upon the specific needs of each patient. Many children benefit from longer acting medications to get them through school, homework and late afternoon/evening social activities. Likewise for adults. But many patients prefer shorter acting medications especially as these can be used to target specific times of day and can also lower the burden of side effects. For patients taken down the non-stimulant arm of the decision tree, duration is not an issue but the patient and doctor must choose from among two classes of medications norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors or alpha-2-agonists. There are not a lot of good data to guide this decision but, again, genetics can be useful in some cases. Regardless of whether the first treatment is a stimulant or a non-stimulant, the patient’s response must be closely monitored as there is no guarantee that the first choice of medication will work out well. In some cases efficacy is low or adverse events are high. Sometimes this can be fixed by changing the dose and sometimes a trial of a new medication is indicated. If you are a parent of a child with ADHD or an adult with ADHD, this trial and error approach can be frustrating. But don’t lose hope. In the end, most ADHD patients find a dose and a medication that works for them. Last but not least, when medication leads to a partial response, even after adjusting doses and trying different medication types, doctors should consider referring the patient for a non-pharmacologic ADHD treatment. You can read details about these in my other blogs but for here the main point is to find an evidenced-based treatment. For children the biggest evidence base is for behavioral family therapy. For adults, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is the best choice. With the exception of preschoolers, the experts I worked with on this infographic did not recommend these therapies before medication treatment. The reason is that the medications are much more effective and many non-pharmacologic treatments (such as CBT) have no data indicating they work well in the absence of medication.
Faraone, S. V. et al. (2015) Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder Nat. Rev. Dis. Primers doi:10.1038/nrdp.2015.20 ; http://rdcu.be/gYyV