July 15, 2022

ADHD and epilepsy: an overview

About Epilepsy

Many people have both ADHD and epilepsy. Find out how common this comorbidity is, and about ADHD epilepsy treatment options.

Did you know that having both ADHD and epilepsy is very common? According to studies, between 12% and 57% of children with epilepsy may also have Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). This is quite a lot higher than in the general population.

If you, or a child you look after, has both ADHD and epilepsy, it’s helpful to learn more about this comorbidity (having two conditions at once) as well as ADHD epilepsy treatment options.

A child with ADHD and epilepsy learning with his teacher

What is ADHD?

ADHD is a developmental disorder that usually begins before the age of 12. Children with ADHD must have at least six symptoms of inattention, or six symptoms of hyperactivity (or a combination). It generally affects boys more than girls - although for children with epilepsy and ADHD, it’s split fairly evenly between genders.

Symptoms of inattentiveness include:

  • Trouble focusing on details
  • Problems listening to or following instructions
  • Issues with paying attention for a long time
  • Knowing where belongings are
  • Remembering daily activities

Symptoms of hyperactivity include:

  • Constantly fidgeting
  • Difficulty sitting down for long periods
  • Running or climbing excessively
  • Difficulty being quiet
  • Being very talkative
  • Interrupting others while they’re speaking

It is believed that around 8% of all children in the US have ADHD, and 2.5% to 4% of adults have it. To be diagnosed with ADHD, the symptoms must be severe enough to prevent the person from functioning in at least two settings - such as at school, home, or at any clubs they attend.

ADHD and epilepsy appear to have a fairly close link. As noted above, between a fifth and half of children with epilepsy also have ADHD. We don't quite know why this is, but it is believed it could potentially be related to genetics, as well as environmental factors. 

Research also shows that children who are taking more than one medication for their epilepsy, or who have uncontrolled seizures, are also more likely to have ADHD.

Read more: What causes epilepsy in children?

Challenges with diagnosing ADHD and epilepsy

Although ADHD is relatively common among children with epilepsy, it sometimes goes undiagnosed. Children with epilepsy are more likely to display attention deficit, rather than hyperactive behavior. Unfortunately, parents, teachers and even doctors may assume that this attention deficit is caused by the child’s seizure medication, seizures themselves, memory issues or sleeping problems. Sadly, epilepsy and ADHD in adults and children may go undiagnosed for years.

To get a diagnosis of ADHD and epilepsy, your epilepsy treatment team needs to work with a neurodevelopmental specialist to verify that your child (or you, yourself) has ADHD.

ADHD epilepsy treatment options

Generally speaking, ADHD and epilepsy can both be treated fairly effectively with medication. There are some risks with medication for ADHD and epilepsy combination. For example, some anti-depressants that are used to treat ADHD, can make seizure medication less effective. 

However, if your doctor is aware of which epilepsy drugs you are taking, they should be able to avoid prescribing medications that could affect your seizures. 

As well as medication, there are also various kinds of cognitive therapy and training methods that can help people with ADHD to cope with hyperactivity or inattentiveness.

Child development: Autism and epilepsy - what’s the link?

Managing epilepsy and ADHD in adults and children

Many people who have ADHD eventually grow out of this disorder. Nevertheless, it can continue into adulthood for some, and affect their quality of life. By getting ADHD and epilepsy diagnosed as soon as possible, doctors can develop a sensitive and personalized treatment.

It can also be helpful to track your seizures and other behavior in Epsy. Using this app can help you to remember when you had seizures, remind you to take your meds, and share this information with your doctor. That can help with your treatment and give you greater control.