ADHD and its coexisting conditions

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, commonly known as ADHD, is a chronic neurological condition that can hinder a person’s evaluation, planning and completion of daily activities. Some common symptoms are inattention, hyperactivity, impulsivity and moodiness, but these symptoms are also present in other conditions. The high comorbidity rate of these conditions in individuals with ADHD can make them difficult to differentiate, diagnose and treat.

Common coexisting conditions

ADHD symptoms often present in early childhood but can extend well into adulthood. The difference in presentation, however, is a decrease in symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity, and a higher rate of psychiatric comorbidities. Studies show that between 60% and 80% of adults with ADHD have at least one coexisting psychiatric disorder.

Common comorbid disorders include oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), bipolar disorder, conduct disorder, sensory integration disorder, learning disorders and early communication problems. In some cases, the symptoms of comorbid conditions are triggered by the frustration of coping with untreated ADHD symptoms, such as depression or anxiety triggered by a chronic lack of focus in the school or work environment.

Know the difference

It is vital to determine if symptoms are secondary to ADHD and likely to dissipate with treatment, or if they are signs of an independent coexisting disorder that requires its own treatment. The key to a proper diagnosis is a careful observation of when and where symptoms commonly arise as well as insights into the triggers and root cause of symptoms. Secondary symptoms usually start at a certain time or under specific circumstances, whereas symptoms of comorbid disorders are chronic and pervasive.

ADHD and OCD, for example, share symptoms of inattention and impulsiveness, but OCD is characterised by intrusive obsessions and the resulting impulses often stem from a need to achieve perfection and a deep-rooted fear of making mistakes. Where ADHD is associated with risk-taking behaviour, OCD is known for harm- or risk- avoidance behaviour and only 25% to 50% of adults with OCD experience symptoms before age 18. Likewise, ADHD-related mood shifts are often triggered by life events but in individuals with bipolar disorder, changes in mood, energy and behaviour are not necessarily connected to the outside world.

The importance of an accurate diagnosis

Early diagnosis and treatment of ADHD can help relieve common symptoms and make day-to-day life much more manageable. It can also potentially prevent the triggering, development and worsening of psychiatric comorbidities such as bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety and substance abuse.

Untreated ADHD can be challenging but living with undiagnosed or misdiagnosed ADHD in conjunction with a comorbid condition such as bipolar disorder, can be dangerous. It is critical to know the difference and get an independent but coordinated treatment plan that addresses the most impairing condition first. With an accurate diagnosis and holistic treatment plan, ADHD and its comorbidities can be managed successfully and help patients feel more stable in mood and in their ability to live fulfilling lives.

If you suspect that you or a loved one might have ADHD, take the first step towards a better understanding with this self-assessment. If you are unsure about the symptoms, speak to a medical professional.