Q: My nine-year-old son has been diagnosed with ADHD — attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He has trouble concentrating in school and is easily distracted and impulsive. The doctors recommended Ritalin as a medication, but I am worried about the risks of addiction. Is there any other, safer way of treating this condition?
A: In children of this age, ADHD is usually treated with Ritalin, a type of amphetamine also known as methylphenidate.
In adults or older teenagers, the same drug could easily become addictive, but it seems to have a paradoxically calming effect on younger children.
However, a recent study from researchers at King’s University in the United Kingdom led by Dr. Jane Change from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience did a controlled trial of 92 children in Taiwan between the ages of six and 18, giving them high doses of omega-3 fatty acids. These substances are commonly found in oily types of fish, but can be taken as dietary supplements. They were compared to children of the same age who were given a placebo.
The study lasted 12 weeks before the subjects were given psychological tests and their symptoms reassessed. They were also given a blood test — currently only available for research purposes — to determine if they had any omega-3 deficiency before the treatment.
Scaly, dry skin, dry eyes and eczema are signs of this dietary deficiency. It is more common in the U.K., Canada and the United States where there is not as much fish eaten as there is in some Asian countries such as Taiwan and Japan.
The researchers found that children who had the deficiency responded best to the supplements. In fact, the symptoms were controlled just as well, if not better, than if they had been taking Ritalin or other prescribed medications.
The doctors cautioned that the results were not as promising in other children who were not deficient in omega-3 fatty acids.
Before implementing any type of medical treatment for ADHD, the child should be professionally assessed by a psychiatrist, a child psychologist or in the case of very young children, a pediatrician.
This person should gather information from teachers or day-care workers, as well as from parents.
Affected children are often in constant motion and squirm or fidget. In my office, there was a chair that rotated and they would spin around in it constantly.
They also have a short attention span, make careless mistakes in their school work and are more easily distracted compared to other children of the same age.
Because these problems are not very different from behaviours seen in normal children — sometimes the more intelligent children who are easily bored — care should be taken not to misdiagnose ADHD and start unnecessary medical treatments.