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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter February 20, 2020

Antidepressant Discontinuation Syndrome: A Common but Underappreciated Clinical Problem

  • Mireille Rizkalla , Bryan Kowalkowski and Walter C. Prozialeck

Antidepressants are a diverse group of medications commonly used as front-line agents for the treatment of various forms of depression. However, many of these medications are also used to manage other conditions, such as obsessive-compulsive disorders, generalized anxiety disorders, eating disorders, neuropathic pain syndromes, and chronic pain syndromes.1 Given the widespread use of antidepressants, physicians may be driven by an overestimated consideration of potential benefits, while appraisal of adverse effects are, by comparison, often overlooked.2

Antidepressants are typically classified as either first or second generation.1 The first-generation antidepressants include tricyclics, a tetracyclic agent, and the monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). Even though they are efficacious in the management of depression and other conditions (eg, anxiety disorders, eating disorders), use of the first-generation agents is often complicated by adverse effects, toxicity in overdose situations, and numerous drug-drug and drug-food interactions.1 Second-generation antidepressants include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), and a variety of other agents, such as trazadone, bupropion, and mirtazapine. These agents generally have better side effect profiles and are far less likely to cause death in cases of overdose.1,3,4

Mechanism of Action of Antidepressants

The mechanisms underlying the therapeutic effects and discontinuation symptoms of antidepressants are not fully understood. Most current theories focus on both the initial primary biochemical effects of the antidepressant, which occur early in therapy, and subsequent adaptive changes in synaptic function and plasticity that occur over time (≥2-6 weeks for most antidepressants).1,5-7 For example, initial biochemical effects involve increased availability of neurotransmitters via inhibition of the synaptic reuptake of neurotransmitter amines, such as serotonin (SSRIs); serotonin and norepinephrine (SNRIs and tricyclics); and norepinephrine and dopamine (buprion).1 Likewise, MAOIs interfere with the metabolic breakdown of neurotransmitters, whereas drugs such mirtazapine and trazadone have direct effects on serotonin receptors.1 Although these biochemical changes are evident within days of therapy, clinical effects such as improvement in mood require several (2-6) weeks of treatment. The time lag between biochemical changes and observed clinical improvement is due to adaptive changes in levels of neurotransmitters, the density of their receptors, alterations in signaling cascades associated with these receptors, and increases in neuroplasticity in limbic regions.1,5,6

After abrupt antidepressant discontinuation, the sudden deprivation of serotonin coupled with temporary adaptive changes probably triggers the antidepressant discontinuation symptoms (ADSs). Neurologic changes and discontinuation symptoms usually slowly resolve over several weeks; however, this period can be difficult for patients.5 Gradual reductions in dosing rather than abrupt discontinuation allows more synchronous recalibration of adaptive changes and mitigates the severity of discontinuation symptoms.5,6,8,9 Suggested tapering regimens are presented in the Table.

Table.

Symptoms of Antidepressant Discontinuation Syndrome and Recommendations for Taper Rates8,10

DrugRecommended Taper RateDiscontinuation Symptoms
MAOIs
 PhenelzineReduction of 15 mg every 2 wk or 10% per wkHeadache, insomnia, myoclonic jerks, agitation, catatonia, delirium, delusions, hallucinations
Tricyclics
 ▪Amitriptyline

 ▪Clomipramine

 ▪Desipramine

 ▪Doxepin

 ▪Imipramine

 ▪Nortriptyline
Gradually taper over 3 moInfluenzalike symptoms, headache, lethargy, insomnia, dizziness, nausea, akathisia, parkinsonism, tremor, agitation, anxiety, low mood
SSRIs
 FluoxetineGradual taper generally unnecessary due to long half-life and active metaboliteInfluenzalike symptoms, headache, lethargy, abdominal pain, diarrhea, insomnia, dizziness, nausea, imbalance, electric shock, irritability, anxiety, low mood
 ParoxetineReduction of 10 mg every 5-7 d with a final dosage of 5-10 mg/d before discontinuation
 SertralineReduction of 50 mg every 5-7 d with a final dose of 25-50 mg/d before discontinuation
SNRIs
 VenlafaxineReduction of 25 mg every 5-7 d with a final dosage of 25-50 mg/d before discontinuationInfluenzalike symptoms, headache, lethargy, nausea, insomnia, dizziness, electric shock, anxiety, low mood

Abbreviations: MAOI, monoamine oxidase inhibitor; SNRI, serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor; SSRI, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor.

Antidepressant Discontinuation Syndrome

Withdrawal symptoms following cessation of the prototypical tricyclic antidepressant, imipramine, were first reported in the 1950s.11 Over the years, similar withdrawal symptoms were reported after the use of all major classes of antidepressants, including other tricyclics (eg, amitriptyline, clomipramine, desipramine), MAOIs (eg, tranylcypromine, phenelzine, isocarboxazid), SSRIs (eg, fluoxetine, paroxetine, sertraline), SNRIs (venlafaxine, duloxetine), and other second-generation agents.12 They have clinically been called discontinuation syndromes, with the intention to avoid any association between antidepressants and addictive drugs (with which the term withdrawal may be associated). Antidepressants are not considered to be addictive in the sense that users do not seek them to “get high” but rather to alleviate symptoms of serious medical problems. However, with extended use, they can be notoriously difficult to quit because they can produce a state of physical dependence. Therefore, discontinuation can cause a group of symptoms that are very unpleasant and can lead patients to continue to seek the medications.5,8,10,13-15 The persistent use is not for a high but to alleviate symptoms of disease or to avoid unpleasant ADSs.

Clinical Manifestations and Diagnostic Considerations

The ADSs typically appear within a few days of stopping an antidepressant and usually last 2 weeks15 or longer.16,17 Even though ADSs are mostly reported after abrupt antidepressant suspension, they can also occur after gradual tapering or after missed doses.7,18 Antidepressant discontinuation symptoms are more likely to occur after longer duration of treatment and with antidepressants that have shorter half-lives for elimination (eg, paroxetine). Symptoms can also vary markedly from one individual to another depending on the drug class. For example, ADSs associated with tricyclic antidepressants closely mimic those of SSRIs but can additionally include profound balance problems and parkinsonian features.8 Certain SNRIs, such as venlafaxine, can cause more severe ADSs than those caused by SSRIs. Antidepressant discontinuation symptoms associated with MAOIs may involve more serious symptoms, such as aggressiveness, catatonia, cognitive impairment, and psychosis and may require more intensive management.19

In the past 2 decades, efforts have been made to develop clinical indices for diagnosing and detecting ADSs. The FINISH mnemonic (flulike symptoms, insomnia, nausea, imbalance, sensory disturbances [including shocklike “brain zaps”2], hyperarousal) was created to facilitate rapid recognition of symptoms.20 The diagnostic criteria that encompass these symptoms have been proposed by Black et al,9 and the use of the Discontinuation Emergent Signs and Symptoms scale is recommended to quantify symptoms.21 A failure to recognize ADSs may result in misdiagnosis of depressive relapse or treatment tolerance, necessitating a high index of clinical discernment. Unlike the abrupt onset of ADSs, symptoms of depressive relapse typically occur weeks after medication discontinuation and are most often marked by gradual worsening of depression, insomnia, and psychomotor symptoms.22 Moreover, concerns over a possible link between antidepressant use and suicidality, particularly among youth, led the US Food and Drug Administration to issue a series of risk communications, culminating in black-box warnings.23 These warnings, amplified by media coverage, led to research, whose findings suggested that there was an elevated risk of suicidality during both antidepressant use and antidepressant discontinuation, especially those medications with short half-lives.24 Collectively, these findings indicate that patients should be warned about and monitored for the possibility of increased depressive and suicidal symptoms.

Prevention and Management

Gradual tapering of an SSRI does not completely prevent antidepressant discontinuation syndrome13 but appears to be a reasonable strategy to reduce ADSs.25 When mild symptoms emerge, reassurance is usually sufficient while the syndrome runs its course. In more severe cases, ADSs may last significantly longer.17 Severe cases can be treated symptomatically, or the antidepressant can be reinstated for rapid resolution followed by careful tapering to prevent reemergence.10 In cases where slow tapering is poorly tolerated, a medication with a longer half-life (especially fluoxetine) may be substituted for the shorter-half-life agent. In addition, cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness-based therapies may be helpful in some patients.26 Tapering regimens have not been validated in systematic studies; therefore, recommendations are based on anecdotal opinion as an art more than a science.8 Research is needed to provide solid evidence-based recommendations.

Summary and Perspective

The Figure summarizes considerations for managing discontinuation of antidepressants. Many physicians consider antidepressants the treatment of choice for a variety of conditions. Therapeutic efficacy, simple dosing regimens, and favorable side-effect profiles of second-generation agents have all contributed to their popularity. While antidepressants are important and potentially lifesaving medications, their unrestrained use may be rooted in an underestimation of the potential for antidepressant discontinuation syndrome. A balanced approach to prescribing acknowledges that this syndrome is a clinically relevant phenomenon that consists of a cluster of somatic and psychological symptoms, can be easily misdiagnosed, and can hinder future antidepressant compliance. Physicians should counsel patients about the possibility of ADSs before initiating therapy with antidepressants.

Figure. Considerations for antidepressant discontinuation after long-term treatment.
Figure.

Considerations for antidepressant discontinuation after long-term treatment.


From the Department of Clinical Integration (Dr Rizkalla) at Midwestern University/Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine (Mr Kowalkowski) and the Department of Pharmacology at the College of Graduate Studies at Midwestern University (Dr Prozialeck) in Downers Grove, Illinois.
Financial Disclosures: None reported.
Support: None reported.

*Address correspondence to Mireille Rizkalla, PhD, Department of Clinical Integration, Midwestern University Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine, 555 31st St, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1235. Email:


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Accepted: 2019-11-12
Published Online: 2020-02-20
Published in Print: 2020-03-01

© 2020 American Osteopathic Association

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