Are ADHD meds making your child shorter?

Taking ADHD medication in childhood may not reduce adult symptoms, but it may affect height.

Child's hands writing ADHD on chalkboard
Photo: iStockphoto

To medicate or not to medicate: that’s the big question for parents whose kids have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Stimulant medications, such as Ritalin, Metadate and Adderall, can control impulsivity and help children with ADHD to focus—making school and outside activities more manageable—but do the benefits of taking ADHD meds as a child carry over into adult life?

The biggest study of its kind, the Multimodal Treatment Study (MTA) followed more than 500 children with ADHD for almost two decades. A team of researchers from across North America observed that their subjects reported comparable severity in their symptoms as young adults, regardless of whether or not they took ADHD meds as kids.

But this new study also linked long-term ADHD medication use in childhood with “height suppression” as an adult. Those subjects who took stimulant medications consistently as children were on average 2.36cm shorter as adults than those who took meds from time to time or for a single short-term stint. This finding supports earlier studies into the side effects of ADHD meds, on a larger scale and on a longer time frame.

The researchers have called for further studies and suggested a rethinking of the most recent guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which “recommend stimulation medication as first-line treatment for adolescents as well as school-aged children.” In line with European guidelines, the team makes a case for combining behavioral interventions or psychosocial treatments with stimulant meds. That way, lower doses of meds can be prescribed to treat symptoms.

They also point out that past studies have found that children with ADHD who treat their symptoms with meds have a lower incidence of substance abuse in the teen years, so there may be some protective effects too. For the treatment plan that best suits your child, we recommend consulting with your MD.

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