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What is Methylphenidate?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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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.

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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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By Reminiscence — On Jul 07, 2014

When I was growing up, I knew a few kids in my class were diagnosed with hyperactivity, but it seems like they were prescribed downers, not stimulants like methylphenidate. When Ritalin first became popular, I thought it sounded counterintuitive to give people stimulants when they had attention deficit disorders. I would have thought slowing their brains down would do more good than cranking them up.

Some of my younger adult friends are still taking Ritalin, whether they actually need it or not. Crushing the pills and snorting them was a terrifying fad a few years ago. The drug started getting harder to find, though, and people with ADD and ADHD turned to caffeine drinks like Red Bull for the stimulation. I think there are other prescription drugs that have become more popular than Ritalin these days.

By Ruggercat68 — On Jul 06, 2014

I remember when my oldest son was in elementary school, a lot of his classmates were being diagnosed with attention deficit disorder or hyperactivity. Methylphenidate (Ritalin) was being prescribed by every doctor in town, it seemed. I didn't want my son getting anywhere near that drug, because I had heard some horror stories about the possible side effects. They were calling it "kiddie crack" around the neighborhood.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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