Chinese Medicine and Tai Chi for Children with ADD/ADHD

09/04/2007 —by John Choi

It is estimated that ADHD affects 3 to 10% of school-aged children. It was previously called Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), but the frequent occurrence of hyperactivity in affected children led to a change in the name. Signs of ADHD include short attention span, inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. Most children will exhibit such signs from time to time, but for children with ADHD, the persistence and frequency of these behaviors are much greater. The diagnosis is based on the signs, symptoms and questionnaires, and there is no laboratory test for ADHD. If ADHD is left unidentified or untreated, the child is at a greater risk for problems such as impaired learning ability, decreased self-esteem, anxiety, depression and social problems.

The exact cause of ADHD is not known. However, studies of the brain have shown that people with ADHD are likely to have an abnormal functioning of certain chemical substances in the brain (neurotransmitters) that regulate behavior. Another study speculates that there is abnormal functioning of prefrontal cortical lobe which causes problems with attention and impulse control. Also, the fact that ADHD tends to run in families suggests that there may be a genetic link. Other possibilities include toxins which interfere with proper brain development and high levels of anxiety of the mother during pregnancy.

In the West, behavior therapy is often combined with drug treatments to lessen the effects of ADHD. The drugs are effective; however, they are not without side-effects.

According to Chinese medicine, there are 3 main causes of ADHD: insufficient nourishment of the spirit, agitation of spirit by heat, or obstruction of orifices. The signs and symptoms characterizing the different patterns are similar to the three most common subtypes of Western medical classification of ADHD: inattentive, hyperactive, and mixed inattentive-hyperactive subtype.

The manifestations for inattentive subtype include difficulty concentrating, distraction, and avoiding of tasks requiring sustained mental effort. They are likely from heart blood deficiency with underlying spleen deficiency. The secondary symptoms may include forgetfulness, dream-disturbed sleep, anxiety, fatigue and reduced appetite.

The manifestations for hyperactive subtype include fidgetiness, excessive running and climbing, difficulty waiting turns, and interruptive and impulsive behavior. They are likely from heat agitating the spirit. The heat may be from liver excess with underlying kidney yin deficiency.

Yin deficiency may combine with existing heart blood and spleen deficiency, and cause the mixed inattentive-hyperactive subtype. The mixed type may also be seen in children who suffer from spleen deficiency and excess liver. The stagnant blood should also be considered when there has been trauma to the brain, most commonly at birth. Lastly, dietary irregularities with excessive consumption of dampening foods as is very common in the West, may aggravate the condition. If the child manifests with signs such as profuse phlegm, nausea, chest and abdominal fullness, slimy tongue fur, and a slippery pulse, then herbs that focus on the transformation of phlegm and the elimination of dampness can be used.

Regardless of the different subtypes, people with ADHD have been helped with Tai Chi, a Chinese martial art system which emphasizes slow-movements and meditation. In a study by the Touch Research Institute, adolescents with ADHD showed less anxiety, daydreaming, inappropriate emotions and hyperactivity with this exercise.

In this particular study, thirteen adolescents with an average age of 14.5 years and a diagnosis of ADHD participated in the study. They were taught tai chi postures for 30 minutes, twice a week for five weeks. Sessions consisted of breathing exercises accompanied by slow raising and lowering of the arms, twisting and turning of the arms and legs, shifting body weight, rotating and changing direction. The Conners Teacher Rating Scale was used by the subjects' teachers to evaluate their behavior prior to the tai chi classes, during the classes and two weeks after the classes ended. The 28-item scale rates overall hyperactivity, as well as subcategories of anxiety, asocial behavior, conduct, dreaming and emotion. Results of the study showed that the adolescents' teachers perceived them as less anxious, emotional and hyperactive. These improved scores remained consistent throughout the two-week follow-up period, without tai chi.

Another research at the University Of Miami School Of Medicine has shown that adolescents with ADHD displayed less anxiety, daydreaming behaviors, inappropriate emotions and hyperactivity, and greater improved conduct, after a five week, two day per week class. Furthermore, Drs. Edward M. Hallowell, M.D., and John J. Ratey, M.D., experts on the management of ADD wrote, "Exercise is positively one of the best treatments for ADD. It helps work off excess energy and aggression in a positive way, it allows for noise-reduction within the mind, it stimulates the hormonal and neuro- chemical systems in a most therapeutic way, and it soothes and calms the body."

In addition to herbs and acupuncture, Tai Chi has provided considerable relief for those with ADHD. Developed and practiced for both martial and health purposes, this precious art nurtures peaceful yet focused mind as well as strong body. It is my desire that the reader explores this art, and experiences the slow and graceful movements of Tai Chi opening up the blockage in the body and the mind.


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