Ritalin (Methylphenidate) is a mild CNS stimulant. In medicine, Ritalin’s primary use is
treatment of Attention Deficit /Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). The mode of action in humans is
not completely understood, but Ritalin presumably activates the arousal system of the brain
stem and the cortex to produce its stimulant effect. Recently, the frequency of diagnosis for
ADHD has increased dramatically. More children and an increasing number of adults are being
diagnosed with ADHD. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) (Bailey 1995),
prescriptions for Ritalin have increased more than 600% in the past five years. Ritalin has a
long history of controversy regarding side effects and potential for abuse, however it greatly
Ritalin (Methylphenidate) is manufactured by CIBA-Geigy Corporation. It is supplied in 5
mg., 10 mg., and 20 mg. tablets, and in a sustained release form, Ritalin SR, in 20 mg. tablets.
It is readily water soluble and is intended for oral use. It is a Schedule II Controlled Substance
under both the Federal and Vermont Controlled Substance Acts. Ritalin is primarily used in the
treatment of Attention Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) (Bailey 1995).
ADHD is a condition most likely based in an inefficiency and inadequacy of Dopamine
and Norepinephrine hormone availability, typically occurring when a person with ADHD tries to
concentrate. Ritalin improves the efficiency of the hormones Dopamine and Norepinephrine,
increasing the resources for memory, focus, concentration and attention (Clark 1996). Ritalin
has been used for more than 30 years to treat ADHD. Nervousness and insomnia are the most
common adverse reactions reported, but are usually controlled by reducing dosage or omitting
the afternoon or evening dose. Decreased appetite is also common but usually transient (Long
1996). According to Clark (1996), children, adolescents and adults diagnosed with ADHD
usually report the following effects when successfully treated with Ritalin:
•Improved ability to complete their work
•Improved intensity of attention and longer attention span
•Reduced restlessness and overactivity
•More elaborate expressive vocabulary
•Better written expression and handwriting (especially in children)
•An improved sense of “alertness”
•Improved memory for visual as well as auditory stimuli
Ritalin exhibits pharmacological activity similar to that of amphetamines. Ritalin’s exact
mechanism of action in the CNS is not fully understood, but the primary sites of activity appear
to be in the cerebral cortex and the subcortical structures including the thalamus. Ritalin blocks
the reuptake mechanism present in dopaminergic neurons. As a result, sympathomimetic
activity in the central nervous system and in the peripheral nervous system increases.
Ritalin-induced CNS stimulation produces a decreased sense of fatigue, an increase in motor
activity and mental alertness, mild euphoria, and brighter spirits. In the PNS, the actions of
Ritalin are minimal at therapeutic doses (Clinical Pharmacology Online 1997).
Ritalin is the quickest of all oral ADHD stimulant medications in onset of action: it starts
to achieve benefit in 20 – 30 minutes after administration, and is most effective during the
upward ‘slope’ and peak serum levels. Ritalin’s effect is brief: Most people experience 2-3
hours of benefit, but after 3 hours, benefits drop off rapidly. Some individuals, especially
children, may obtain 4 or even 5 hours of positive effect (Clark 1996).
Recently, there has been a dramatic upsurge of interest in using stimulants (mainly
Ritalin) for children and adults for the increasingly popular diagnosis of ADHD. According to
Persky (1996), the high frequency of the diagnosis of ADHD is a uniquely American
phenomenon. Children and adults are now under greater pressure to perform and to do well
academically or in the workplace. The chilling message in school and at work is “Perform or
Else.” Because of this high intensity atmosphere, the use of Ritalin has become attractive. This
has resulted in an acute “epidemic” of ADHD and the treatment of choice is Ritalin (Persky
1996). For example, after education reforms spearheaded by Ross Perot in Texas in 1984,
Ritalin use in the state doubled. One Texas mother says she is being hounded by teachers to
put her two boys on Ritalin against their psychologist’s advice. Another mother says she had to
ask a school board member to intervene when teachers at her child’s school also pressed for
Ritalin use(“Critics say Ritalin,” Houston Chronicle, May 1996). Ritalin is an effective treatment
for people with ADHD. Because it allows them to filter out distractions and improve
concentration, some schools and parents force Ritalin on children who may have nothing more
than a severe case of childhood. At a popular church preschool, approximately 20 percent of
children are on Ritalin. Even a Little League coach urged Ritalin for a 9-year-old catcher to
improve his performance. Ritalin’s safety and efficacy is what has turned it into teachers’ and
parents’ little helper. It solves, or in some cases masks, children’s behavioral problems (“Critics
say Ritalin,” Houston Chronicle, May 1996). According to Clark (1996), people who have
ADHD come from every imaginable social, vocational, educational and emotional background.
ADHD is a condition which may afflict physicians, attorneys, carpenters, actors, politicians,
casino employees, executives, and homemakers. While Ritalin is a very important aspect of
treatment, in many or most cases it is only part of the overall treatment effort. Stimulants
(mainly Ritalin) specifically affect attention span, concentration, focus, and distractibility. No
alternative medications, nor any other form of treatment, address these symptoms of ADHD as
Learning disabilities, such as reading difficulties or anxiety, are sometimes
misdiagnosed as ADHD or co-exist with ADHD. Ritalin will help the child sit still in class, but
may not deal with the real culprits keeping the child from learning. Many pediatricians believe
children younger than 6 — even if they have ADHD — should wait to be medicated until they
learn basic rules of behavior. Yet while liberal estimates are that six out of 100 children suffer
from the disorders, six out of 30 preschoolers in one group at a Day School in Houston take
Ritalin. Teachers are often the only ones who get an inkling that a child may have ADHD, and
are within their rights to call a parent and suggest the child be evaluated for the disorder. No
teacher should be permitted to suggest a specific medication or pursue the topic once the
parent demurs. (“Critics say Ritalin,” Houston Chronicle, May 1996). After a slowdown of Ritalin
use in the 1970’s, the pendulum began to swing back in the 1980’s. It has swung so far, that in
1994 about 9 tons of Ritalin was produced (DEA in Persky 1996). According to Bailey (1995),
epidemiologists at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) describe Ritalin abuse over the
last two decades as “sporadic but persistent,” and rates of use fluctuate over time. When
purchased in pharmacies with a valid prescription, Ritalin tablets cost 25 cents to 50 cents
each. In the illicit street drug market, tablets sell for $3 to $15 each. While street prices in the
Midwest are now at the low end ($3 to $5 per tablet) compared with some West Coast
locations, they have been rising over the past few years. In 1994, an upsurge in illicit street use
of Ritalin was reported on the U.S. West Coast and in the Midwest. Non-medical use
consisting of snorting crushed Ritalin tablets or dissolving the powder in water and “cooking” it
for intravenous injection was reported at Chicago and Detroit. Anecdotal reports suggest that
suburban, white abusers are more likely to snort Ritalin, while African American inner-city
abusers are more likely to inject it (Bailey 1995).
Ritalin is an extremely useful medication. It has minimal side effects after the first few
months. It works quickly, wears off quickly, and because of this targets some ADHD issues
optimally. No other stimulant medication impacts so specifically on alertness, concentration
and focus. Individuals with ADHD may respond well to psychotherapy, behavior modification,
and other interventions. Successful treatment of ADHD begins with careful diagnosis, followed
by proper prescription of medications. An accurate diagnosis, in conjunction with carefully
developed and targeted treatment, should limit abuse and ensure continued success in
Bailey, W. J. (1995). Factline on non-medical use of Ritalin. Factline Number 9 November 1995, [on-line], pp. 1-7. Available: http://www.drugs.indiana.edu/.
Clark, C. G. (1996). Stimulant Medications. Diagnosis and Treatment of Attention Deficit Disorder, [on-line], pp. 1-12. Available: http://www.ADDCLINIC.com/.
Clinical Pharmacology Online, Ritalin (1997). Clinical Pharmacology Online. Gold Standard Multimedia Inc., [on-line], Available: http://www.gsm.com/., p. 1.
Critics say Ritalin has become panacea for children’s scholastic, behavioral problems. (1996, May 23). Houston Chronicle via Nando.Net, [on-line], pp. 1-3. Available: http://www.Nando.net/.
Long, P. W. (1996). Methylphenidate, Brand name Ritalin, Drug Monograph. In, Internet Mental Health Drug Monograph. [on-line], Available: http://www.mentalhealth.com/. (pp. 1-7). Ottawa, Canada.
Persky, M. (1995, May). LISTENING TO RITALIN: The New Epidemic.. The Northern California Psychiatric Physician, 5, 43-45.
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