Is ADHD Real?
Doctors don’t know everything about how ADHD works in the brain. But Alsakaf points out that “imaging tests like MRIs show there are clear differences in people who have it and people who don’t,” he says.
He points to the prefrontal cortex, a brain area that plays a role in behavior, problem solving, and emotions. In people with ADHD, its activity is different from someone who doesn’t have the condition.
The fact that treatment is effective is also evidence that the disorder is real. “When I work with adults with ADHD or parents of children with ADHD who are skeptical, I tell them that research from thousands of patients shows that behavioral treatment like talk therapy and/or medication improve ADHD symptoms” psychologist Phil Glickman, PsyD, says.
Real, but Over-diagnosed?
Some people argue that doctors decide people have the disorder far more than they should, and that very few people actually have it.
It’s true that more people have been diagnosed in recent years. This may partly be because more people know about it and because the guidelines that health care professionals use to diagnose ADHD changed in 2013.
But errors do happen. “ADHD shares some symptoms with other psychiatric disorders, like bipolar disorder,” Alsakaf says. “A [doctor or therapist] could make a mistake, especially if he or she doesn’t have extensive experience with ADHD.”
More often, though, people with the disorder also have other health problems, like depression or substance abuse. “These issues can mask ADHD, and actually make it harder to get the right diagnosis,” Glickman says.
Abuse and overuse of ADHD medications have also contributed to some misunderstanding about the condition. Because some of the meds can be stimulating, some teens and adults who don’t have the disorder use them to boost their focus. “Doctors do see patients who are seeking habit-forming medications and who claim to have ADHD symptoms in order to get a prescription,” Alsakaf says. “But that’s generally not the case.”
If You Have Doubts
Not sure if you, your child, or someone else in your family truly has ADHD? You can get a second opinion from an expert, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, who is well-trained to help with diagnosis and treatment.
“A health care professional who specializes in ADHD can help determine if the diagnosis is accurate,” Alsakaf says. “He or she can talk to you about how ADHD works in a way that relates to you, and help find a treatment strategy that works. And that can greatly improve your quality of life.”