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Misdiagnosed ADHD: Conditions With Overlapping Symptoms

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on March 21, 2021

All your symptoms seem to point to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): It’s hard to sit still. You have trouble following directions and feel forgetful and disorganized. You may even lose your temper easily, start fights, or steal things.

It could be ADHD. There’s also a chance you’ve been misdiagnosed. It might be something else, or ADHD and another disorder. Here’s what you need to know.

Things That Look Like ADHD

Certain medical conditions have symptoms that overlap with signs of ADHD. They include:

Anxiety. You often worry about school, work, or other things that are important to you. You might feel stressed, tired, and tense. You may have trouble sleeping.

Borderline personality disorder. This condition makes it hard to control your emotions. You may have intense bouts of anger, depression, and anxiety that stick around for hours or days. Borderline personality disorder can lead to issues like impulsive behavior, low self-esteem, and relationship problems.

Disruptive behavior disorders. You may argue or feel angry a lot. Or you might act aggressively toward people or animals. You might destroy property, lie, or steal things. People with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) often lose their temper and blame others for their own mistakes. Conduct disorder (CD) could lead you to break serious rules.

Hypothyroidism. The thyroid gland in your neck makes hormones that help your body work the right way. When it doesn’t make enough, you may have brain fog, memory problems, or trouble focusing or sleeping.

Learning disabilities. You have trouble learning or using new information, even if you’re very smart. It may be hard to pay attention, finish tasks, or stay organized.

Mood disorders. Everyone is sad or feels hopeless sometimes. You feel this way a lot when you have a mood disorder like depression. You could have a hard time focusing or feel worthless. You might not want to do things you usually enjoy. If you have bipolar disorder, you feel really energetic and happy for a while, then depressed. That can make it difficult to keep a job or do well in school.

Schizophrenia. This mental illness can lead to problems with paying attention and controlling your emotions. You might also do things you wouldn’t normally.

Substance abuse. Problems at school or work, poor memory, and bad judgment are just a few symptoms of drug and alcohol abuse. ADHD can also make kids more likely to drink alcohol, start smoking, or abuse drugs.

Tics and Tourette’s syndrome. Tics make you twitch or jerk a lot, or make sudden noises. Tourette’s is more severe. You may loudly repeat words or sounds, blink a lot, or move your arms or legs uncontrollably. Most people with tics or Tourette’s also have ADHD.

Other Conditions That Look Like ADHD

Even if it’s not a medical condition, you might still have symptoms similar to ADHD. It could be:

Dehydration. Your brain needs water to work. Dehydration can lead to trouble thinking clearly, paying attention, solving problems, and making decisions.

Sleep disorders. You need restful sleep to function. Not getting enough can make it hard to focus, solve problems, and make decisions.

Getting the Right Diagnosis

Several professionals can help you figure out whether you have ADHD. They include:

  • Clinical psychologists
  • Clinical social workers
  • Nurse practitioners
  • Neurologists
  • Psychiatrists
  • Pediatricians

You might see one or more of these specialists. They’ll try to figure out if your symptoms are caused by ADHD, another condition, or both. You’ll get a physical exam, including hearing and eye tests. This will help rule out other conditions.

They’ll likely use a checklist of ADHD symptoms to see what you have. If you’re diagnosed with ADHD and another condition, your doctor will help you decide which one to treat first. It depends on which disorder makes your life harder. Your doctor may choose to treat your ADHD first if that eases stress or helps you better manage the other condition’s symptoms.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD): “Coexisting Conditions,” “Diagnosing ADHD.”

National Institute for Children’s Health Quality: “NICHQ Vanderbilt Assessment Scales.”

Cleveland Clinic: “ADHD: Overdiagnosed and Overtreated, or Misdiagnosed and Mistreated?”

CDC: “Other Concerns and Conditions with ADHD.”

Frontiers in Psychiatry: “Symptom Overlap and Screening for Symptoms of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Psychosis Risk in Help-Seeking Psychiatric Patients.”

National Academy of Hypothyroidism: “Is There a Link Between Thyroid Disease and ADD/ADHD?”

Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: “Dehydration Impairs Cognitive Performance: A Meta-analysis.”

Mayo Clinic: “Drug Addiction (Substance Use Disorder).”

Psychiatry: “ADHD: Is Objective Diagnosis Possible?”

Borderline Personality Disorder and Emotion Dysregulation: “Common ground in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) -- review of recent findings.”

Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment: “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder And Borderline Personality Disorder In Adults: A Review Of Their Links And Risks.”

National Institute of Mental Health: “Borderline Personality Disorder.”

National Alliance on Mental Illness: “Borderline Personality Disorder.”

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