Antidepressants, and particularly those belonging to the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) class of drugs, have been in widespread use for decades. But even with all of the research and media coverage of the medications, doctors still aren’t completely sure how they work. They do know that the drugs are responsible for increasing the concentration of serotonin, an essential neurotransmitter, in the brain, but exactly how this interacts with mood or well-being is not precisely clear. What is clear, though, is that there are significant side effects linked to this class of medications.
WHAT ARE THE CONCERNS WITH SSRI ANTIDEPRESSANTS?
Whenever a medication alters the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, the effects can be widespread and unpredictable. Serotonin is believed to govern many of the body’s processes to some extent, so it’s no surprise that there are many adverse complications associated with SSRI use. For example, almost all SSRIs are linked to a greater risk of bone fractures, a risk that can be twice as high in some people. Many can also result in movement disorders, including akathisia, which is characterized by a persistent feeling of restlessness and constant fidgeting. It can be extremely debilitating to deal with on a daily basis, and it is linked to drugs like Paxil and Prozac.
However, the two complications that antidepressants are associated with the most are birth defects and suicidal tendencies. SSRIs are strongly linked to a severe heart malformation known as persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn (PPHN). One study found that fetuses exposed to SSRIs after the 20th week of pregnancy were six times more likely to develop the condition. PPHN occurs when the child’s circulatory system does not adjust to operating outside of the womb, leading to dangerously low blood oxygenation and pulmonary hypertension. If not treated right away, it can be fatal, and even those that survive are at a higher risk of developing hearing and neurological complications. And treating PPHN is an expensive, emotionally taxing process that requires separation between child and parent at times. It can be traumatic for many.
The link between SSRI antidepressants and suicide is not as firmly established, but several studies have at least produced a noticeable link. This includes a pair of studies in England that demonstrated greater rates of self-harm in people taking SSRIs. The FDA has released several warning reports about the possibility of depression, suicidal ideation, and suicidal tendencies in patients. These warnings are often aimed at children, who are frequently susceptible to the profound effects SSRIs can have on the brain.
With so much research coming out against SSRIs, it’s no surprise that they have been the subject of many lawsuits. Paxil, in particular, and its manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline, have sustained repeated blows in the courts, forcing the company to pay out more than $1 billion to victims and their families. However, these drugs remain extremely popular for use in depression, and in many forms of off-label use, such as treating nausea. And while medical professionals are cautioned against prescribing them in pregnant women, it still happens to an alarming degree. So this and other antidepressants will likely continue to show up in drug injury cases going forward, and attorneys will continue to fight against the reckless pharmaceutical companies that release them without proper safety research.