Over 15% of Individuals Who Stop Antidepressant Face Withdrawal Symptoms: Study

Study encourages individuals considering stopping use of antidepressants to speak with their doctors first, to understand the potential withdrawal symptoms.

While antidepressants can be an effective way to treat anxiety, depression, and other mental disorders, they can also cause unpleasant side effects and withdrawal symptoms when the medications are discontinued, according to the findings of a new study.

Antidepressants are widely used in the United States, with some estimates suggesting that nearly 8% of adults between 18 and 39 years of age take the drugs like Lexapro (escitalopram), Effexor (venlafaxine) and others, and more than 19% of adults over the age of sixty receive prescribed antidespressants. While the medications are often thought to carry few serious health risks, there may be under appreciated withdrawal side effects from antidepressants.

In a study published this month in the medical journal The Lancet, researchers found that nearly one out of every seven patients who discontinued antidepressants experienced higher frequency or severity of withdrawal symptoms than those given a placebo, such as headaches, nausea and sleeping problems.

Discussion of antidepressant discontinuation symptoms began in the late 1950’s, but the topic was mostly pushed aside until the 1990’s, researchers note. However, recently attention on the issue has increased as withdrawal symptoms have become more recognized as an important consideration when prescribing medication.

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A team led by Dr. Jonathan Henssler, of the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at Germany’s University of Cologne, reviewed data from more than 21,000 patients in a metanalysis across 79 studies.

In the study, 16,532 patients stopped taking either Lexapro, Effexor, Pristiq (desvenlafaxine), or Tofranil (imipramine) compared to 4,470 who discontinued placebo pills. The majority of the participants were female, comprising 72% of the group, reflecting the higher usage rates of antidepressants among women. The average age of participants was 45 years.

Antidepressant Withdrawal Symptoms & Frequency

Henssler and and his team determined that about 15% of patients experienced withdrawal symptoms after stopping antidepressant use. A smaller portion of patients—3%, or 1 in every 35 patients—experienced more severe antidepressant discontinuation symptoms.

Symptoms varied by patient, with the most common withdrawal side effects including headaches, nausea, dizziness, insomnia, and irritability. Duration of symptoms also varied by patient, with some patients experiencing symptoms for several weeks to several months after stopping the medications.

“Desvenlafaxine, venlafaxine, imipramine, and escitalopram were associated with higher frequencies of discontinuation symptoms, and imipramine, paroxetine, and either desvenlafaxine or venlafaxine were associated with a higher severity of symptoms,” the researchers determined.

People stop taking antidepressants for a large variety of reasons. Some women halt antidepressant use when they get pregnant out of concern for the effect on their unborn child, but this may not be as large of a concern as researchers previously thought. Many also stop antidepressant use due to sexual side effects, or the many other adverse health effects associated with the drugs.

The researchers examined both immediate cessation and tapering, or slowly reducing use, as means to stop antidepressant treatment. The study did not find a substantial difference in the rate or severity of withdrawal symptoms when comparing patients who stopped through cessation and those who stopped through tapering.

The findings outline the importance of individuals speaking with their healthcare professionals when they are  considering stopping use of antidepressants the researchers noted. Seeking a doctor’s help could increase the safety of their approach to discontinuing medications, they concluded.

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