Treating ADHD without drugs

SOUTH KOREA - From horseback riding to physical exercise, new therapies designed to balance the brain and better emotional conditions are raising hopes to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder without drugs.

Chung Yoo-sook, a doctor at the department of neuropsychiatrics at Samsung Medical Center, plans to run a three-month clinical trial to test the effectiveness of a horseback riding programme in treating ADHD children.

Typical treatment methods for ADHD patients are mostly drug-based, using attention-boosting and mood-altering medications.

But Chung's trial, the first of its kind in Korea, is designed to medically test whether horseback riding helps ADHD kids control their behaviour and learn and practice healthier ways of thinking.

Not only learning how to ride the horses, kids will also learn how to communicate with animals.

"The test will see how their connection with the animals improves their concentration and attentiveness," Chung said.

The trial will survey ADHD patients aged between 6 and 12 and they will attend the horseback riding programs twice a week.

Chung's team will measure changes in the participants' brain function, cognitive abilities and physical activities during the trial.

"Not only treating the disease with drugs, (doctors and parents) should consider psychiatric, behavioural treatments as well," the trial is expected to open a new chapter for non-medication ADHD treatments.

ADHD is the most commonly diagnosed neuro-developmental disorder, and is more common in boys than girls.

Children with ADHD tend to have a hard time paying attention, are forgetful, and are easily distracted to the point that it creates problems at school, at home and with their friends.

The number of new ADHD diagnoses has grown at an average 0.4 per cent annually between 2007 and 2011.

According to a report published by Health Insurance Review and Assessment Service in 2009, only 11 per cent of children under 19 with ADHD were receiving appropriate treatment.

In the US, nearly 50 per cent of ADHD children were thought to be attending treatment programs, Chung said.

Korea's lack of recognition of ADHD as a disease is the main reason why many ADHD kids don't get proper treatment. Another is the parents' psychological and financial burden of bringing them to hospitals. There are not enough social or health care facilities to support the children and their parents, Chung said.

However, it is important to treat the disease as early as possible because childhood ADHD may lead trouble later on in life. Children with the disease can develop low self-esteem, trouble socializing and other functional problems if parents leave children untreated, according to studies.

Experts say that nutrition plays an important role. Those with ADHD should avoid too much processed food, refined sugars and simple carbohydrates. ADHD symptoms can be reduced by having more fruits and vegetables than usual.

A growing number of local hospitals are operating non-drug ADHD treatments as doctors warn of side effects.

Cognitive behavioural therapy and neurofeedback, are most common non-drug treatments. But it is important to provide customised therapy to balance the development of the left and right brain, according to a doctor at Balance Brain Center in Seoul.

"Patients need to go through a number of tests to determine which side of the brain is weak and then need to get proper treatment according to the functioning level of their brains," said Byun Ki-won, a doctor at the centre.

The centre operates a list of programs of sensory exercises designed to stimulate both sides of the brain. Physical exercise is mandatory both at the centre and at home to strengthen kids' upper body and core, he added.