This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the graduate students in my Psychopathology course during Spring 2014. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Mental Health.” To that end, each student has to prepare two 1,000ish word posts on a particular class of mental disorders, with one of those focusing on evidence-based treatments for those disorders and the other focused on a particular myth or misunderstanding about mental illness.
Alternative Medicine Treatments for ADHD (and why they don’t work) by Hunter Holder
Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a mental disorder that is characterized by inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsive behavior. Like many mental disorders, ADHD is very treatable. Many decades of empirical evidence has shown that with pharmacological treatments, psychotherapy, or a combination of the two, adults and children diagnosed with ADHD can have fairly typical lives. In fact, there are several options available for each kind of treatment because some medications may be harmful to certain individuals or some therapies may be more suitable for some than others. However, in an age where doctors, therapists, and big medicine are endlessly perceived as the bad guys that can’t and shouldn’t be trusted, there are alternative treatments as well. Things like chiropractic medicine, acupuncture, and message therapy. Naturopathic “doctors” even suggest that things like herbs, homeopathic medicine, and supplements can cure the symptoms of ADHD, citing that natural remedies “add more to the healing process” than western medicines.
A lot of the proponents of these alternative treatments promote them by stating that the side effects of recommended medication are too dangerous or that the medications themselves are intrinsically unsafe. While it is true that all medications have side effects and can be potentially dangerous, the primary medications for ADHD (commonly known as Ritalin and Adderall) have far more benefits than disadvantages. In fact, along with behavioral treatment, they are the most effective treatments available. Nevertheless, in an age where “all natural” and alternatives reign among the general population, people still buy in to the atypical treatments out there. This begs the question: do these treatments really work?
The American Chiropractic Association (ACA) recommends that children and adults diagnosed with ADHD be treated by chiropractic medicine. The organization makes some pretty typical pseudoscientific claims. First, they make claims that there is something wrong with the disorder itself. They claim that perhaps some kids just can’t learn some subjects as well or others and that some teachers just don’t know how to teach these kids in a way that they can understand. This is somewhat misleading because while ADHD can certainly hinder learning and academic performance, the disorder itself is not a learning disorder. Second, they claim that the diagnosis is invalid and that it is based on a questionnaire. In reality, diagnosis is a longitudinal process that comes from assessment, observation, and interviews or reports from teachers and parents. Third, they claim that the treatments with actual evidence supporting them are insufficient because they do not cure the disorder. However, it is well understood that pharmacological treatments for most mental disorders are for short-term benefit and long-term results are far more likely to come from behavioral therapy. It is also understood that ADHD isn’t something that can be cured in the same way that a bacterial infection can. The organization goes on to say things that imply that they are the ones focusing on the source of the problem, which they claim is lack of postural muscle development (the exact cause of ADHD is fairly unknown and is likely caused by several factors), instead of just the symptoms like trained mental health professionals do. Finally, the organization makes what may be one of the most defining traits of pseudoscience, anecdotal claims that their treatment works as good or better than western medicine. Of course, they are claims that have no actual experimental empirical evidence.
Perhaps someone is looking for alternative treatments for ADHD in their child because the child had an adverse reaction to Ritalin. If they found themselves at the ACA website, they would probably believe that this treatment is a viable option. The website overall is very official looking, they use big words like “chiropractic neurologist” and “musculoskeletal imbalance”, and all of the evidence and claims come from so-called doctors. Plus, who hasn’t heard of going to the chiropractor to get your back cracked? Maybe they could help with this too. In reality, these people should look to a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist because there are plenty of other options besides Ritalin, both pharmacological and psychological, to effectively treat ADHD. However, they may not because they have read the negative things that the ACA has to say about the effective medications. In reality, chiropractic medicine could never treat ADHD or even help with symptoms more than a placebo could. As a whole, chiropractic medicine is nothing more than a pseudoscience that was created by a grocer and, to be honest, a scam, and a dangerous one at that. There is no empirical scientific evidence to support the use of chiropractic medicine as a treatment for ADHD or, for that matter, any other ailment that it may claim to treat except for back pain possibly.
The same case could be made for the number of other alternative treatments that are available for ADHD. Things like acupuncture and homeopathy have their basis in pseudoscience as much as chiropractic treatments do. Acupuncturists claim that their form of therapy is the ideal primary treatment for children suffering from ADHD. In fact, acupuncture has not been shown to provide anything more than a simple placebo effect. Proponents of homeopathic medicine make the same claims. They say that western medicines like Ritalin and Adderall are too dangerous and that their treatment is far more desirable. In reality, homeopathic medicine is absurd. It is based on the concepts “like cures like” and “less is more” (sounds ridiculous already, huh?). So those that create homeopathic medicines take a substance that they believe would normally cause the ailment (e.g., poison ivy oil for an itch) and then dilute it over and over again. When then finished product hits the shelves, it is nothing more than a ridiculously overpriced (and lucrative) dropper full of water.
It’s important to stay aware of these kind of pseudoscientific treatments not just for ADHD, but for any illness. Researching and having a skeptical mind is key to finding out if what you’re doing is actually accomplishing something or if you’re just wasting your time and money. There are plenty of resources out there that take these kinds of subjects, break them down, and get to the truth about their effectiveness and validity. However, if something is called alternative medicine, it probably doesn’t really work. Alternative medicine that works is just called medicine.