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What Is Methylphenidate?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 06 April 2014
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Methylphenidate is probably most well-known by brand names like Ritalin® and Concerta®. It is a stimulant often prescribed for treatment of conditions like attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The drug has other approved uses and some off-label uses, or those not approved by organizations like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In appropriate contexts, the medicine can be very effective, but it can have a heavy profile of side effects and it is subject to abuse or to creating addiction.

One of the other conditions for which methylphenidate is considered useful is narcolepsy. This causes people to be extremely sleepy and perhaps even fall asleep during daytime hours. Another disorder that methylphenidate might treat successfully is postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, which creates profound changes in heart rate when people move from a lying down to sitting up position.

Off-label uses for methylphenidate continue to expand. It is thought of as a potential alternative to anti-depressant medications. The stimulant properties of the drug often result in suppression of appetite and some people take this medicine to augment weight loss strategies.

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There are many ways to take this medication. Though pill form is most common, other things like patches might be available too. Dosage is variable and is based on the person, age, and condition. Appearance of each drug may vary because there are so many generic and brand name forms available. Some types come in an extended release (ER) form which might reduce the number of pills needed on a daily basis or provide wider coverage of symptoms for a longer period of time each day.

This medicine does have side effects, which can include things like nausea and appetite suppression. In adults, the latter may not be concerning, but in children, extreme suppression of appetite could lead to poor gains in growth. Other mild side effects associated with methylphenidate include difficulty sleeping, increase in nervousness, pins and needles sensations in extremities, dizziness, headache, and excess sweating. Not all people have all side effects, and many people experience them only briefly.

More serious side effects warrant immediate contact with a doctor and these include development of suicidal thoughts or serious depression, aggressive behavior or thoughts, pounding or racing heart rate, very severe peeling rash, very high blood pressure, unusual involuntary muscle movement, and feeling faint. Anaphylactic reaction to the drug is possible and could include symptoms of hives, difficulty breathing, and swollen face, tongue, and lips. Get emergency help if these symptoms emerge.

Methylphenidate is addictive. When used appropriately, dependence occurs but can be handled by tapering off the medication. Trouble is greater when the drug is used illegally, which it is often because so many children and young adults have access to it. Only those who are prescribed it should use this medicine under the care and supervision of a physician; other uses seriously risk health and break laws. Anyone using this drug in an illegal manner should get drug counseling.

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