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Do homeopathic treatments for ADHD work?

Asked by Suzie,

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Our 8-year-old daughter was diagnosed with ADHD at age 6. We have tried several medications, stimulants and nonstimulants, and have not gotten good results. We are now looking at homeopathic treatment for our daughter, but the question is: Does it really work?

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Mental Health Expert Dr. Charles Raison Psychiatrist,
Emory University Medical School

Expert answer

The short answer to your question appears to be no. Let's talk about this short answer before we talk a little about a longer and more complicated answer.

Compared with studies in many thousands of children and adolescents -- including studies lasting many years -- as of 2007, the effects of homeopathy for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, had been studied with even minimal rigor in only four studies.

When researchers combined data from the 168 young people in these four studies, they found no evidence that homeopathic treatments were of benefit for ADHD. So at this point in time I think we have to conclude that by the standards used to assess Food and Drug Administration-approved medications, homeopathic treatments don't work.

OK, that's the short answer. The longer answer is that homeopathic approaches do not appear to work better than placebo treatments, so they don't work in any specific way for ADHD. But placebos can have powerful beneficial effects for many health conditions, ranging from depression and chronic pain to Parkinson's disease. Recent studies show clearly that when people believe they are taking an active medication but are receiving a placebo their brains activate in much the same way -- but to a lesser degree -- as their brains do in response to the active medication.

The internet is chock-full of treatments promising the sun, moon and stars for all sorts of medical problems. The vast majority of these have never been adequately tested.

Look for the last few lines of small print underneath all the gigantic claims made on internet sites for homeopathic ADHD treatments. You'll always see something along the lines of "claims have not been scientifically established" or "treatment is not intended for medical purposes." In psychiatry, we often say that a new medication works best just before it is approved for use, because its sheen has not been rubbed off by clinical experience.

Although homeopathy doesn't work in formal studies, it does not mean it might not help certain individuals, and your child might be one of them. But I would strongly suggest that if multiple ADHD medications have failed it is possible that your daughter has been misdiagnosed and is being given medications that work for a condition she doesn't have.

Before doing anything in terms of alternative treatments, I'd make sure you got your daughter the best mental health assessment you can find to make sure that she doesn't have a condition such as bipolar disorder, which can often resemble ADHD in childhood but requires different types of medication.

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