1 in 7 Patients Experience Symptoms After Discontinuing Antidepressants

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Approximately one in seven patients who discontinued their use of antidepressants experienced discontinuation symptoms, according to a wide-ranging analysis published in The Lancet Psychiatry. In arriving at this figure, the researchers accounted for a high frequency of anticipated discontinuation symptoms.

The emergence of adverse symptoms after antidepressant cessation has been described as far back as 1959, but was mostly neglected until the late 1990s. Today, the existence of antidepressant discontinuation symptoms is widely accepted, with transnational guidelines suggesting safe tapering. They can be highly variable and non-specific, with the most frequently reported symptoms being dizziness, headache, nausea, insomnia, and irritability. It has been reported that symptoms typically occur within a few days and are usually transient, but can last up to several weeks or months.

The incidence and severity of symptoms remained controversial however, with estimates ranging up to a majority (56%) of patients experiencing them, half of them severe. Previous reviews have been criticised for bias, and medical opinions are polarised on the subject.

The researchers reviewed 79 studies involving more than 21 000 participants, and found that about one-third of patients experienced symptoms such as headaches, nausea, insomnia, and irritability after accounting for patient expectations. Even in patients taking placebo, 17% experienced symptoms – suggesting that this is attributable to patient expectations about the adverse effects of stopping the drug.

After taking this into account, roughly one in seven individuals had antidepressant discontinuation symptoms. Neither tapering nor abrupt cessation of the drugs made no difference in the proportion of people who experienced discontinuation symptoms.

In addition, about 1 in 35 people experienced severe discontinuation symptoms. Desvenlafaxine, venlafaxine, imipramine, and escitalopram were associated with higher frequencies of discontinuation symptoms, and imipramine, paroxetine, and either desvenlafaxine or venlafaxine were associated with higher symptom severity. The authors cautioned that there was substantial heterogeneity of results.

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