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Show 1389: Getting Off the Medication Treadmill

It's hard to stop taking some medicines. Hear how listeners get off the medication treadmill and share your own story.
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Getting Off the Medication Treadmill

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This week, Joe and Terry Graedon welcome your questions and stories about difficulties in stopping medicines, whether prescription or OTC. Dr. Richard Friedman, an expert on drugs to treat anxiety and mood disorders, describes the symptoms of discontinuing such an agent too suddenly. Have you had trouble getting off the medication treadmill? You can ask your questions about how to stop a medicine and share your experience at 888-472-3366 between 7 and 8 am EDT. Or email us: radio@peoplespharmacy.com

You could listen through your local public radio station or get the live stream at 7 am EDT on your computer or smart phone (wunc.org). Here is a link so you can find which stations carry our broadcast. If you can’t listen to the broadcast, you may wish to hear the podcast later. You can subscribe through your favorite podcast provider, download the mp3 using the link at the bottom of the page, or listen to the stream on this post starting on June 17, 2024.

Getting Off the Medication Treadmill:

There are a number of questions we should ask as soon as we receive any prescription. What is the drug supposed to do? When do we take it? What side effects might we experience? One question we should always ask–but often don’t–is when should we stop taking it, and how.

You might be surprised how many medications could be hard to stop. You’ve probably heard that benzodiazepines used to treat anxiety or insomnia can cause unpleasant symptoms if a person stops taking one too abruptly. How suddenly is too suddenly? That seems to vary from person to person. However, while a few people have no trouble stopping cold turkey, some people need to taper the dose gradually over weeks or months.

Discontinuing Antidepressants:

People who begin to feel anxious when they stop an anti-anxiety medicine may naturally conclude that their original complaint has returned. Those who experience symptoms upon stopping an antidepressant don’t always believe that, though. That’s because symptoms of an antidepressant discontinuation syndrome tend to be more physical than psychological. People tell us they sweat, feel nauseated and dizzy, experience “brain zaps” somewhat like electric shocks or have a sensation they describe as “head-in-a-blender.” None of these were part of the original complaint of depression.

Some who have suffered from discontinuation syndrome found that decreasing the dose in tiny increments very gradually makes the symptoms tolerable. Neither the manufacturers nor the FDA have provided guidance for prescribers or patients on how to get off the medication treadmill with minimal trouble.

OTC Discontinuation Problems:

You might not be surprised that some powerful prescription products can be very tricky to stop without serious symptoms. But over-the-counter drugs are a different situation. People generally don’t think of them as triggering problems, but we have heard from hundreds of people who wind up using certain OTC products for years because they can’t figure out how to get off them.

Nasal Spray:

One of the classic examples is decongestant nasal spray. These work really well to clear a stuffy nose. However, using one for more than a few days can lead to rebound congestion upon stopping. For many people, being unable to breathe through the nose is so intolerable that they keep using the nasal spray for months or years. Some describe themselves as being “addicted to Afrin” although really the problem is not addiction but getting off the medication treadmill.

Proton Pump Inhibitors:

People take acid-suppressing drugs like omeprazole (PrilosecOTC) and esomeprazole (Nexium 24HR) to treat frequent heartburn. The label warns, however, not to use it for more than 14 days at a time. People who take such drugs for many weeks, not just two, often find that rebound hyperacidity results in heartburn worse than ever if they stop the drug suddenly. How can you get off PPIs?


Another example of OTC medications that can be difficult to quit are the antihistamines cetirizine (Zyrtec) and levocetirizine (Xyzal). Lots of people take them for a few weeks in the spring or fall when their allergies are bothering them and stop without problems. Others, especially those who have taken them for a longer time, experience intolerable itching if they stop suddenly. This itching can last up to six weeks or so, and many listeners find it so horrible that they go back on the drug.

We welcome your questions about jumping off the medication treadmill and your stories about problems you may have had. Please share your inquiries and anecdotes. You can email us: radio@peoplespharmacy.com or call 888-472-3366 between 7:00 and 7:50 am EDT on Saturday, June 15, 2024.

This Week’s Guest:

Richard Friedman, MD, is a Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and the Director of the Psychopharmacology Clinic at Weill Cornell Medicine.
Dr. Friedman’s specialties include anxiety and mood disorders, psychopharmacology and refractory depression. The article we discuss with him was published in the Washington Post. His website is https://weillcornell.org/richardfriedman

Richard Friedman, MD, describes getting off the medication treadmill

Dr. Richard Friedman, Weill Cornell Medical Center

Listen to the Podcast:

The podcast of this program will be available Monday, June 17, 2024, after broadcast on June 15. You can stream the show from this site and download the podcast for free.

Download the mp3.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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