June 10, 2011

ADHD may Actually be PTSD

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Joseph V. Madia, MD By:

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Mental health issues common in victims of childhood trauma

(dailyRx News) Being exposed to violence and trauma can have a profound impact on the physical, mental and emotional well-being of children. And the effects can linger for years.

New research shows that children who grow up in traumatic environments are more likely to suffer from learning and behavior problems, mental health issues and obesity. But because doctors don't usually ask about trauma, these children may be diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) when they actually have a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"Childhood trauma has long-lasting physical and emotional impacts."

The study conducted by Stanford University School of Medicine examined children living in low-income, violent neighborhoods. Researchers found that children who were exposed to four types of trauma were 30 times more likely to have behavior and learning problems than those who didn't experience the trauma.

Children who live in areas where violent crimes - such as shootings - are common, live under constant trauma. Victor Carrion, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford says this type of environmental stress can impact the child's overall physiology.

The child psychiatrist says these kids may have PSTD, not the more commonly diagnosed ADHD. The two conditions have similar symptoms.

"I'm not saying that all kids with ADHD have PTSD," Carrion said. "But we need to ask more questions to learn if symptoms begin before or after a traumatic event."

Carrion said, "Physicians can ask simple, open-ended questions such as 'What's the worst thing that has happened to you in your life?'" This will help doctors better determine if the child's symptoms and behaviors are stress related.

This study builds on previous research showing links between childhood traumas with poorer adult health. Traumatic events can include:

  • Various kinds of abuse or neglect
  • Having household member who abused alcohol or drugs, was incarcerated or was mentally ill
  • Witnessing violence
  • Not living in a two-parent household
  • Natural disasters

Middle class men exposed to more of these types of events had more chronic diseases in adulthood, the previous study found.

To perform the current study, researchers analyzed the medical records from 701 children for adverse events in relation to obesity and learning and behavior problems.

If the issues are addressed, Carrion says children can recover from PTSD. "Treatment for PTSD is psychotherapy, not psychostimulants that are used to treat ADHD."

The right diagnosis and treatment can help youngsters not only in  the short term, but possibly avert more serious mental and physical issues down the road.

The new study is being published online today in Child Abuse & Neglect: The International Journal.

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Reviewed by: 
Joseph V. Madia, MD
Review Date: 
June 8, 2011

Last Updated:
October 3, 2012