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Guideline source: American Heart Association

Literature search described? Yes

Evidence rating system used? Yes

Published source:Circulation, May 2008

Recently, there have been concerns about the safety of psychotropic medications in children (particularly, the cardiovascular effects); the determination of which patients should be treated; and the indications for cardiovascular monitoring. The 1999 American Heart Association (AHA) statement on cardiovascular monitoring in children receiving psychotropic drugs did not specifically address cardiovascular monitoring in patients taking stimulants. Since then, increased awareness of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), concerns about adverse effects of medications, and new regulatory factors and warnings from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and pharmaceutical companies have prompted another look at this issue. The AHA has released a scientific statement and recommendations about cardiovascular monitoring and the use of stimulants in children suspected or known to have heart disease.


Warnings on various stimulants indicate that they typically should not be used in children with serious structural cardiac abnormalities, cardiomyopathy, heart rhythm abnormalities, or other cardiac problems that could put them at high risk of sympathomimetic effects. The AHA indicates that these recommendations are not intended to limit appropriate use of stimulants, label children with heart disease, or limit participation in athletic activities. Instead, they are intended to clarify which children have heart disease and to determine the amount of risk associated with stimulant therapy in this population.

After an ADHD diagnosis, a thorough evaluation, including patient and family history, should be performed before stimulant therapy is started, paying special attention to symptoms that can indicate the presence of a cardiac condition. The history should include questions about the following: history of fainting or dizziness, high blood pressure, heart murmur, or other heart problems; seizures; rheumatic fever; chest pain or shortness of breath with exercise; changes in exercise tolerance; palpitations, increased heart rate, or extra or skipped beats; viral illness with chest pain or palpitations; and current medication and supplement use. Family history should include questions about the following: sudden or unexplained death in a young person; sudden cardiac death, heart attack, or event requiring resuscitation in persons younger than 35 years; death during exercise; hypertrophic or other cardiomyopathy; long or short QT syndrome or Brugada syndrome; Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome or other abnormal rhythm conditions; and Marfan syndrome.

A physical examination should also be conducted. It should include an evaluation for the presence of an abnormal heart murmur, cardiovascular abnormalities, and Marfan syndrome. Because some cardiac conditions may not be detectable on routine physical examination, electrocardiography (ECG) may be useful because it can increase the probability of identifying children with a cardiac condition. If possible, the ECG should be read by a physician with expertise in reading ECGs in children (e.g., pediatric cardiologist). Before initiating therapy with a stimulant, an evaluation by a cardiologist should be done if there are any significant findings on physical examination, ECG, or patient or family history. Table 1 lists ECG findings for which consultation with a cardiologist is recommended.

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Category ECG findings Comment
A (normal or normal variant ECG reading) Sinus bradycardia, arrhythmia, or tachycardia

These ECGs do not require further workup unless clinical symptoms, physical examination, or history suggests cardiac involvement.


Right ventricular conduction delay or incomplete right bundle branch block without right ventricular hypertrophy or right axis deviation
Isolated intraventricular conduction delay
Right axis deviation in patients 8 years or younger
Early repolarization
Nonspecific ST-T wave changes
Juvenile T-wave pattern
QTc ≥ 0.45 seconds by computer, but normal by hand calculation
Borderline QTc of 0.44 to 0.45 seconds
B (abnormal readings that have a low likelihood of correlating with cardiac disease) Isolated atrial enlargement, especially right atrial enlargement; this usually will not need further evaluation

Patients with these findings may need to be seen by a cardiologist.

The prescribing physician should correlate the ECG reading with the history, physical examination, and symptoms, and discuss the reading with a cardiologist to assess the need for a referral.



ADHD medication usually does not need to be stopped with these findings; if there is a question about stopping medication, discussion with a cardiologist is recommended.


Biventricular hypertrophy with only mild midprecordial voltages of 45 or 50 mm; this may need further evaluation
Ectopic atrial rhythms; right atrial, left atrial, wandering atrial pacemaker at normal rates
  Low right atrial rhythms are common, usually are normal variants, and will rarely need further evaluation; other ectopic atrial rhythms are less common and may need further evaluation
First-degree atrioventricular block
C (abnormal readings that may correlate with the presence of cardiac disease) Left or right ventricular hypertrophy

As with category B readings, the prescribing physician should correlate the ECG reading with the history, physical examination, and any symptoms the patient might have, and discuss the findings with a cardiologist to assess the need for a cardiology office visit.



It is likely that a patient with this reading will need to be seen by a cardiologist; however, a cardiology office visit with examination and further testing or evaluation may not result in a diagnosis of cardiac disease. In fact, many of these patients have a small likelihood of having significant cardiac pathology that would result in a change in the plan of treatment of their ADHD. Therefore, it is not necessary in most cases to immediately stop the medication, but discussion with a cardiologist is recommended.


Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome
Left axis deviation
Right axis deviation, especially in patients older than 8 years
Right atrial enlargement and right axis deviation
Right ventricular conduction delay and right axis deviation
Second- and third-degree atrioventricular block
Right bundle branch block, left bundle branch block, intra-ventricular conduction delay > 0.12 seconds in patients olderthan 12 years (> 1.10 seconds in patients younger than 8 years)
Prolonged QTc > 0.46 seconds
  The prescribing physician should ask about medication that might prolong QTc, which could cause mild QTc prolongation
Abnormal T waves with inversion V5, V6; bizarre T-wave morphology, especially notched or biphasic, or flat and/or ST-segment depression suggesting ischemia or inflammation
Atrial, junctional, or ventricular tachyarrhythmias, including frequent premature atrial contractions or premature ventricular contractions

Medication and Monitoring

It is reasonable to obtain ECGs when evaluating children being considered for stimulant therapy; however, clinical trials are lacking and opinions on this topic vary. There also are no widely accepted recommendations with regard to cardiac monitoring in children receiving stimulants. It is unknown if sudden cardiac death risk is higher in patients taking stimulants than in the general population, but recent data and warnings about cardiac disease warrant these new and updated recommendations.

MedicationsMechanism of actionCardiac effects and commentsRecommendations for cardiovascular monitoring
Class I, level of evidence C*Class IIa, level of evidence C*
Methylphenidate (Ritalin), dexmethylphenidate (Focalin)Release and/or inhibit reuptake of catecholamines (e.g., dopamine, norepinephrine); increase level of neurotransmitters at the synapseIncreased HR and BP; no ECG changesBP, HRECG on first visit
Amphetamine/dextro-amphetamine (Adderall), dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine), lisdexam-fetamine (Vyvanse)Release and/or inhibit reuptake of catecholamines; increase level of neurotransmitters at the synapseIncreased HR and BP; no ECG changesBP, HRECG on first visit
Atomoxetine (Strattera)Selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitorIncreased HR and BP in adults and children; palpitations in adults; no ECG changesBP, HRECG on first visit
Clonidine (Catapres)Alpha2-adrenergic agonistDecreased HR and BP; no ECG changes; rebound hypertension with abrupt discontinuationBP, HR; additional BP when medication is started and weanedECG on first visit
Guanfacine (Tenex)Alpha2-adrenergic agonistDecreased HR and BP; no ECG changesBP, HRECG on first visit
Desipramine (Norpramin), imipramine (Tofranil)Block the reuptake of dopamine and norepinephrineProlongation of QTc, PR, QRS, tachycardia; rare reports of sudden deathBP, HRBaseline ECG and at dose increases
PR ≤ 200 milliseconds
QRS ≤ 120 milliseconds
QTc ≤ 460 milliseconds
Bupropion (Wellbutrin)Decreased firing rate of norepinephrine- and serotonin-releasing neuronsIncreased BP in adults (not in children); cardiac toxicity with overdoseBP, HRECG on first visit


Cardiovascular Monitoring of Patients on Specific Drugs. Physicians should provide continued assessment through physical examination and questions regarding cardiac symptoms and new family history. Blood pressure and pulse should be evaluated within one to three months of initiating treatment with any medication and then every six to 12 months. This should be done more often during titration of doses or weaning of alpha agonists. If a patient is found to have any cardiac symptoms, he or she should be referred to a cardiologist and appropriate testing should be done to determine if any serious cardiac adverse effects are present. Monitoring for specific drugs should occur before and after initiation of stimulant therapy as described in Table 2.

Cardiovascular Monitoring of Patients with Structural Heart Disease or Other Heart Conditions. There are no data to indicate that children with most types of congenital heart disease who are taking stimulants are at high risk of sudden cardiac death. It is reasonable to consider using stimulants in persons with congenital heart disease that is not repaired, that is repaired but does not have hemodynamic or arrhythmic concerns, or that is considered stable. It is also reasonable to use stimulants with caution and careful monitoring in patients with the following conditions: heart conditions associated with sudden cardiac death (e.g., long QT syndrome, short QT syndrome, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy); history of arrhythmia requiring resuscitation, direct current cardioversion or defibrillation, or overdrive pacing; history of arrhythmia associated with death or sudden cardiac death; previous aborted sudden cardiac death; other clinically significant uncontrolled or untreated arrhythmia; QT interval on ECG of less than 0.46 seconds; and heart rate or blood pressure more than two standard deviations above the mean for age. If any of these conditions are diagnosed during stimulant treatment, discontinuation of the medication should be considered until further testing can be performed. If arrhythmias are treated or controlled, the patient can be restarted on stimulants with cardiologist approval.

Patients Currently Taking ADHD Medications

It is reasonable to obtain a history, review the physical examination, and order an ECG in children already taking methylphenidate (Ritalin), an amphetamine, or other stimulants if not previously done as outlined in these recommendations and if considered necessary.

Evaluation of Risks and Alternatives

The risks and alternatives to taking stimulants, as well as the risks of not taking stimulants, should be discussed with the family and other treating physicians as appropriate.

Future Studies

Future studies are needed to determine the true risk of sudden cardiac death associated with stimulants in children with and without heart disease. Randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies should be considered.

Coverage of guidelines from other organizations does not imply endorsement by AFP or the AAFP.

This series is coordinated by Michael J. Arnold, MD, Assistant Medical Editor.

A collection of Practice Guidelines published in AFP is available at

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