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Abilify Side effects: How Dangerous Are Antipsychotic Drugs?

TV ads make it seem as if drugs like Abilify can solve problems of depression. Do people understand the devastating and sometimes permanent side effects?

Mental illness has always represented a challenge to the medical community. TV commercials to the contrary, there is no silver bullet to cure anxiety, bipolar disease, major depression or schizophrenia. Just check out the list of Abilify side effects to appreciate the severity of the situation.

A Tragic History of Mental Health Treatments:

Antipsychotic drugs seemed to represent an important advance in the treatment of mental illness. Before chlorpromazine (Thorazine) was introduced in the early 1950s, mental institutions often relied on padded cells, straitjackets, cold wet sheets or lobotomies to control unruly patients.

The antipsychotic medications, including haloperidol (Haldol), thioridazine (Mellaril) and trifluoperazine (Stelazine), appeared to help reduce hallucinations and calm agitation. But adverse reactions were common.

Side Effects of Major Tranquilizers:

People taking such drugs often became heavily sedated, slurring their speech and slowing their movements. Patients also complained of dizziness, constipation, urinary problems, sexual side effects, mental cloudiness and uncontrollable muscle twitches or spasms.

Tardive Dyskinesia: Permanent Brain Damage?

Uncontrollable muscle spasms may not seem like such a terrible adverse drug reaction until you realize that this condition is difficult or even impossible to treat. The symptoms can come on very slowly, over months or years, and the very drugs that cause it can mask the symptoms until the drugs are stopped. Then the potentially permanent brain damage manifests itself in life-changing ways.

Symptoms of Tardive Dyskinesia:

  • Involuntary muscle contractions of legs, arms and fingers, foot tapping or arm flapping
  • Facial grimacing, lip smacking and/or puckering
  • Uncontrollable tongue movements or chewing motions
  • Grunting, frowning or rapid eye blinking

Until you know someone who is experiencing the torment of tardive dyskinesia (TD) you cannot appreciate the devastating consequences of this adverse drug reaction. It can lead to social isolation and thoughts of suicide. Julie describes it this way on our website:

“TD is usually permanent and often progressive. It is a disabling condition. I have seen very bad cases, where patients were unable to sit in a chair or converse with others or eat in public without causing a scene. Never mind trying to sit at a computer and operating a keyboard…unheard of with TD.

“TD will affect you socially. Imagine trying to appear ‘normal’ at a party when you can’t stop your lips from smacking or your tongue from jabbing out of your mouth or your arms from jerking this way and that.”

Atypical Antipsychotics: Breakthrough or Bonanza?

Psychiatrists were excited when drug companies introduced a new generation of medications for schizophrenia starting about two decades ago. These “atypical antipsychotics” were expected to be much better tolerated. They included aripiprazole (Abilify), olanzapine (Zyprexa), quetiapine (Seroquel), risperidone (Risperdal) and ziprasidone (Geodon).

The hope was that these medications would allow people with mental illness to function normally in society without serious side effects. Some psychiatrists were convinced that the new generation antipsychotics would not trigger tardive dyskinesia.

Side Effects of Atypicals:

In practice, however, the atypical antipsychotics were not substantially more effective than older medicines for schizophrenia (New England Journal of Medicine, Sept. 22, 2005). Far from being free of adverse reactions, the atypical antidepressants can lead to type 2 diabetes, rapid weight gain, seizures, headaches, blurred vision, cognitive impairment, irregular heart rhythms and stroke.

Despite their drawbacks, they are being prescribed for many conditions besides schizophrenia, including bipolar disorder, fibromyalgia, autism, ADHD, OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder] and as an add-on for depression. One reader wrote us about an experience with Abilify:

“I was prescribed Abilify as an antidepressant booster. The psychiatrist had put our entire therapy group on that drug.

“Abilify did not work for me and also caused alarming rapid weight gain, but the psychiatrist denied that the drug causes weight gain. He scoffed at the idea that Abilify was worsening my depression.

“I went to the Mayo Clinic for a second opinion and was told this drug often causes weight gain. The doctor took me off it immediately.

“My mood improved quickly and the extra weight rapidly disappeared. I am alarmed to read that children vulnerable to peer taunting are given this drug. What are doctors thinking?”

Abilify Side Effects and Tardive Dyskinesia:

Many physicians believed the drug company hype that the new-generation antipsychotic drugs did not cause TD, or did so only rarely. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry (April, 2010) revealed that the new “atypicals” produced this complication at a rate similar to that of the older, more conventional antipsychotics.

What Readers Report about Abilify Side Effects and TD:

Laurie experienced a classic withdrawal effect:

“I was on Abilify for years and finally went off it. Then I got tardive dyskinesia. I never knew you could get side effects from a drug after you go off it. Now I can’t work and am piling up doctor bills.”

Although it can take many months or years for TD to manifest, some people develop it surprisingly quickly.

Kieran shared this about Abilify side effects:

“I took it [Abilify] for less than 8 weeks and the akathisia [restlessness], tremor, tardive dyskinesia has not resolved.”

Julie also described long-lasting Abilify side effects:

“My experience with Abilify was that it caused very negative side effects while taking it, strange withdrawal symptoms, and long-lasting damage that far outweighed any benefit.

“For example, I gained 70 pounds. I had tardive dyskinesia while taking it that has lessened but still recurs 4 years after stopping. My emotional states were very blunted (They don’t call it the emotional straightjacket for nothing.) Friends told me my sense of humor came back after I stopped taking it. Withdrawal symptoms lasted for years.”

Andy notes that it took a long time for TD to reveal itself:

“I developed tardive dyskinesia after taking Abilify for eight years for depression. There are more and more cases of TD cropping up with second-generation antipsychotics, especially Abilify, in the past few years, both in the medical literature and in doctors’ experiences. This drug is particularly prone to induce it. The wide use of second-generation antipsychotics for a wide variety of mental illnesses, not just schizophrenia, is extremely disturbing and should be looked at by some sort of watchdog group.”

TV Commercials and Atypical Antipsychotics:

In 2012 it was reported that sales of Abilify topped $5,000,000,000. That made this antipsychotic drug one of the most successful prescription medications (#2) in terms of sales dollars.

Prescriptions for atypical antipsychotics have been increasing. Perhaps the substantial rise may be in part due to television commercials that present drugs like Abilify as solutions to antidepressant ineffectiveness.

While a long list of scary Abilify side effects is read by the voice-over announcer, a smiling cartoon character interacts with co-workers and then serves lemonade to her smiling cartoon family. Meanwhile, the voice says:

“Call your doctor if you have high fever, stiff muscles and confusion to address a possible life threatening condition or if you have uncontrollable muscle movements, as these can become permanent…”

Such a scary message may not register with depressed viewers when the cartoon character seems to be having so much fun.

Atypical Antipsychotics and Abilify Side Effects:

Patients and their parents should be warned of possible worsening of depression or thoughts of suicide in children, adolescents and young adults. Tardive dyskinesia should be described in detail with video examples of what the symptoms actually look like. If caught early enough it may be possible to prevent TD from becoming permanent.

No one should ever stop Abilify or other atypical antipsychotics suddenly. There is a possibility of withdrawal symptoms, including sweating, nausea, vomiting, agitation, confusion, dizziness and uncontrollable muscle movement.

Despite the billions of dollars that have been spent on such drugs, they are not cures for mental illness. Many people benefit, but the pros and cons must be weighed carefully before such medications are prescribed.

Read more about Abilify side effects at this link. Share your own experience with this drug or other atypical antipsychotics such as olanzapine (Zyprexa), quetiapine (Seroquel), risperidone (Risperdal) and ziprasidone (Geodon) in the comment section below.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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