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When Your ADHD Meds Stop Working

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on March 18, 2021

Many people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) use medication to treat their symptoms. Prescription drugs may help you stay focused and ease other symptoms. But they don’t work for everyone. Sometimes, they work for a while and then stop. If you suspect your ADHD medicine isn’t working anymore, here’s what you need to know.

Why Medication Doesn’t Always Work

Stimulants are the most common and effective drugs for ADHD. Stimulants speed up your body’s systems, which can help you focus. Doctors prescribe two types of stimulants for ADHD: the kind that contain a compound called methylphenidate and the kind that contain a compound called amphetamine. Most people with ADHD will get results from at least one of these. But some people may not for one of the following reasons.

Your body’s chemistry. As many as 1 in 10 people don’t get results from either of the two main types of stimulants prescribed for ADHD because they don’t work with their body chemistry. Though experts aren’t sure why, sometimes medicines can stop working even though they did in the past.

Changes in your symptoms. The medication itself isn’t always the problem. It could be that your ADHD symptoms have gotten more severe and that you need more medicine or a different one to get the same results. New life events can make your symptoms worse, too. For example, stressful and demanding situations can make it even harder to focus. That’s why it’s important to talk to your doctor or therapist about what’s happening in your life when you tell them that your medicine doesn’t seem to do what it used to.

Another health problem. It’s also possible that another condition is to blame for new problems that seem like ADHD symptoms. These new troubles could make it seem like your medicine is now less effective. In fact, an estimated 81% of adults with ADHD have at least one other condition, such as an anxiety disorder, depression, substance abuse, or a mood disorder. Depression and anxiety are especially common in people with ADHD. Symptoms like fuzzy thinking and lack of focus could stem from anxiety or depression. Treating them can make it easier to concentrate and do the things you need to do, like work and take care of yourself.

What to Do if Medication Stops Working

If you’re taking ADHD medicine and your symptoms don’t improve or they get worse, tell your doctor. They may recommend that you slowly increase your dose. If that doesn’t work, you may have to try a different drug. Though stimulants are the most common choice for ADHD, your doctor may recommend you try non-stimulants such as atomoxetine, bupropion, or tricyclic antidepressants.

Some doctors recommend taking a break from your medicine when it doesn’t seem to be working. That involves stopping the drug for a month or two, then taking it again. Sometimes this can make it effective again. But you may notice an increase in your ADHD symptoms while you’re not taking medication. That’s why experts recommend taking a “drug holiday” during actual holidays, vacations, or other slow times if possible.

But never stop taking your medicine without talking to your doctor first. They may want you to taper (that is, slowly reduce the amount you take). They could also recommend you use nondrug treatments to ease your ADHD symptoms. Some nondrug treatments are:

  • Regular exercise. Research shows that physical activity can help you pay attention. It can also boost your mood and may even reduce risky behaviors linked to ADHD.
  • Neurofeedback, also known as “brain training” or EEG biofeedback. This involves placing headgear with sensors on your scalp to monitor brain waves while you play a computerized game. This may control ADHD symptoms, though experts say they need more research.
  • Talk therapy with a psychologist or therapist who specializes in ADHD.

It’s important to talk to your doctor about how you feel and share any new problems. That can help them find out if you have another health issue that makes it hard for you to focus and function.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Stephanie Sarkis, PhD, adjunct assistant professor, Florida Atlantic University; sub-investigator, Clinical Research Studies, Florida Atlantic University Schmidt College of Medicine, Boca Raton, FL.

Imad Alsakaf, MD, psychiatrist; assistant professor, Department of Psychiatry, Creighton University, Omaha, NE.

Harvard Mental Health Letter: “Neurofeedback for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.”

American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry and American Psychiatric Association: “ADHD: Parents Medication Guide.”  

National Institute of Mental Health: “Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): The Basics.”

Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment: “Treatment of adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.”

Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience: “Treatment of ADHD in patients unresponsive to methylphenidate.”

ADDitude: “The ADHD Medication Stopped Working! How to Troubleshoot Treatment.”

United States Drug Enforcement Administration: “Stimulants.”

American Academy of Pediatrics: “Look at life circumstances when ADHD medications stop working.”

Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology: “A Randomized Trial Examining the Effects of Aerobic Physical Activity on Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Symptoms in Young Children.”

Current Psychiatry Reports: “Emerging Support for a Role of Exercise in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Intervention Planning.”

CDC: “Other Concerns and Conditions with ADHD.”

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