Medical science has come a long way in its ability to recognize and treat ADHD. Still, there's no single ADHD test available to definitively diagnose this common disorder.
Talking with the patient and family members may be the most important diagnostic tool doctors have for ADHD. Through talking, the doctor can learn about the patient's daily moods, behaviors, productivity, and lifestyle habits.
The exact causes of ADHD are not known.
Experts do know that ADHD has a strong genetic component. In addition, they think that genes that control the levels or functioning of certain chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters seem to be different in those with ADHD.
In some cases, though, there is no genetic link to ADHD, but other common behaviors, such as smoking or drinking during pregnancy, as well as other obstetrical complications have been linked to ADHD in children.
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A physical exam will show a patient's overall state of health. But the doctor needs to know what specific ADHD signs and symptoms a child or adult has to diagnose and effectively treat ADHD.
What's involved in the evaluation for ADHD?
The doctor will base a diagnosis of ADHD on criteria from the American Psychiatric Association. The criteria, which you can see at the end of the article, come from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, also known as DSM-V.
The ADHD evaluation may include the following:
Talking with the child or adult to get a patient history
Talking with the parents or spouse to get a patient and family health and behavior history
Clinical assessment using standardized behavior rating scales or questionnaires
Review of the person's academic, social, and emotional functioning and developmental level
Evaluation of learning disabilities, if any
Further testing is not needed to make an ADHD diagnosis. But the doctor may ask for other tests, including:
Checking the person's hearing and vision
Testing the blood for lead levels
Testing the blood for diseases such as thyroid disease
Testing brain waves with an encephalograph to measure electrical activity in the brain
If the patient is a child, the doctor will talk with the parents about the child's ADHD behaviors. The doctor will ask the age behaviors began and the settings where the child displays symptoms of ADHD. The doctor may ask for a behavior assessment from the child's classroom teacher along with current report cards and samples of schoolwork.
If the patient is an adult, the doctor may talk with a spouse or other family member. That's to get an accurate medical and behavioral history to go with the patient's symptom assessment. For adults who may have ADHD, the doctor will ask for information to identify childhood symptoms. That will include:
Behaviors at home
Behaviors at school
Interactions with peers and siblings
Other clues of childhood ADHD
ADHD is often diagnosed in adults. It actually starts, though, in childhood. Having "proof" of ADHD behavior as a child can help the doctor reach an accurate diagnosis and treat the symptoms effectively. As many as 50% of children with ADHD will still have symptoms in adulthood.
Are there specific ADHD tests the doctor might use?
We've become accustomed to blood tests or other expensive laboratory tests to help doctors make a conclusive diagnosis. So parents often ask for blood work or a brain scan to diagnose ADHD.