What Are Antipsychotic Drugs?36mins
In the vast realm of psychiatric medications, one class stands out for its profound impact on the treatment of psychosis: antipsychotics. These medications have revolutionised the lives of individuals suffering from conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, offering hope in the face of debilitating symptoms. They are sometimes prescribed for anxiety, in very low doses, and occasionally for treating physical problems, such as persistent hiccups, problems with balance, and nausea. Often, they are used for dementia. However, they are generally used to help people who are experiencing psychosis, either as a one-off episode or as part of an ongoing illness.
Psychosis is a broad term, which covers schizophrenia and manic behaviour, but people may also experience brief episodes during severe depression or a physical illness, or sometimes because of taking street drugs.
Antipsychotic drugs have been in use since the 1950s. Antipsychotics target and modulate key neurotransmitters in the brain, particularly dopamine receptors. By doing so, they help to alleviate hallucinations, delusions, and disorganised thinking that often plague those with psychosis.
Antipsychotics are often effective in controlling the symptoms of psychosis, and enable many people to return to normal life. However, not everybody finds antipsychotics helpful, and they can’t cure the problem. They may lessen delusions, hallucinations, incoherent speech and thinking, and reduce confusion. The drugs can control anxiety and serious agitation, make the person feel less threatened, and also reduce violent, disruptive and manic behaviour. However, their effectiveness does not come without a price.
As with any medication, antipsychotics carry a range of potential side effects. These can include weight gain, sedation, movement disorders such as Parkinsonism or tardive dyskinesia, and metabolic changes leading to diabetes or high cholesterol. These side effects have sparked ongoing debate among researchers and clinicians about the long-term use of these drugs.
Antipsychotic drugs are standard, routine treatment for people who are experiencing psychosis, and doctors believe that drug treatment should be started as soon as possible. But recent research has raised important questions about whether people might not do better without using these drugs.
Some research suggests that someone with schizophrenia, who remains on antipsychotics for a number of years, may be less likely to relapse than someone who is not taking them. But a paper published in the Journal of Medical Hypotheses in 2004 suggests that resorting to antipsychotics immediately, as a matter of routine, may worsen long-term outcomes, and that a considerable percentage of those treated would do better if they were not given drugs. This paper suggests that people experiencing their first episode of psychosis should not be treated with drugs and that every person who is taking antipsychotics should be given the opportunity to withdraw from them, gradually. It suggests that this would dramatically improve recovery rates and reduce the number of people who become ill in the long term.
Recent studies have raised questions about whether antipsychotics are being overprescribed or utilised as a first-line treatment option without considering alternative approaches. Some researchers argue that cognitive therapy or social interventions may provide effective alternatives for certain individuals with milder symptoms or those experiencing initial episodes of psychosis. It is crucial to strike a balance between medication management and exploring non-pharmacological options.
While there is no denying that antipsychotic medications have transformed psychiatric care over the past century since their introduction in the 1950s (1st generation, typical antipsychotics), it is important to understand that newer generations (2nd generation) known as atypical antipsychotics offer enhanced efficacy while minimising certain side effects associated with their predecessors.
Typical antipsychotics primarily target dopamine receptors within specific pathways in the brain but can lead to extrapyramidal symptoms such as dystonia or akathisia due to their strong affinity for one particular type of dopamine receptor (D2). Atypical antipsychotics, on the other hand, not only modulate dopamine receptors but also interact with serotonin and other neurotransmitters. This broader mechanism of action contributes to their effectiveness in managing a wider range of symptoms and reducing the risk of extrapyramidal side effects.
It is crucial for healthcare professionals to consider various factors when choosing the right antipsychotic for each individual patient. Different symptoms of schizophrenia may respond differently to specific medications, requiring a personalised approach. Atypical antipsychotics are often preferred as first-line treatments due to their broader efficacy and better tolerability profile compared to typical antipsychotics.
However, switching between different types of antipsychotics should be done with caution and under close supervision. Factors such as previous response, side effect profile, potential drug interactions, and patient preferences must all be considered when considering a medication regimen change.
Furthermore, it is essential to recognise that certain medical conditions require caution when prescribing antipsychotics. Individuals with cardiovascular disease or conditions affecting blood pressure should be closely monitored due to the potential for adverse effects on heart function. Older adults may experience increased sensitivity to these medications and face an elevated risk of cognitive decline or movement disorders.
Expectant or new mothers must also carefully consider the use of antipsychotics during pregnancy and breastfeeding. While some medications may pose risks to the developing foetus or nursing infant, others can be used with appropriate monitoring and consideration of potential benefits versus potential harm.
Understanding the nuances surrounding these precautions and contraindications is vital in ensuring safe and effective treatment outcomes for individuals grappling with psychosis-related disorders.
In our journey through understanding antipsychotics, we will delve deeper into polypharmacy – the use of multiple antipsychotics concurrently – exploring its risks, benefits, guidelines for implementation, as well as considerations for patients detained in hospital under mental health acts. But before we embark on that exploration, let us first acquaint ourselves with the potential drug interactions that can occur when antipsychotics are combined with other psychiatric medications in lesson XYZ.
With each lesson, we aim to shed light on the multifaceted world of antipsychotics, empowering both patients and healthcare providers to make informed decisions and embark on a path towards holistic care.