The biggest risk you take filling an Rx isn’t what you think

If you go to your doctor for help with insomnia, you’re more likely than not to leave with an Rx.

And the chances are good it will be for one of the most commonly-prescribed drugs for sleeping problems — trazodone. But trazodone is a med that was approved by the FDA for “major depressive disorder,” not insomnia.

It’s also linked to side effects such as potentially deadly heart rhythm disorders, a lowering of the immune system and the risk of “suicidal thinking.” Quite a big gamble to take to try and get some shut-eye!

Trazodone, however, is far from the only antidepressant that’s given “off label.”

A new study out of Canada has found that around a third of antidepressants are prescribed not for depression, but lots of other conditions such as pain, insomnia, migraines and many other complaints. And most of the time there’s no real evidence that they can help.

But while it’s quite legal for doctors to do this, off-label prescribing can come with risks that are often off the charts.

Rethinking the ‘norm’

A few weeks ago, I told you about the practice of prescribing the Alzheimer’s med Aricept to perfectly normal people who may be having some worrisome “senior moments.” That off-label practice can “accelerate cognitive decline” putting patients right in the crosshairs for dementia.

When you get a drug off-label, it simply means that the med is being given for a condition that wasn’t FDA approved. And as this new study discovered, in the case of antidepressants, very often doctors do it for no other reason than it’s done so often it “seems like the norm,” said lead author, Jenna Wong.

She and her team crunched data for over 100,000 prescriptions for antidepressants given out in Quebec for a period of 12 years. And Wong, from McGill University in Montreal, called the findings “eye-opening.”

The Canadian researchers found that 44 percent of these drugs prescribed off-label had no “strong research” that supported that “alternative” use. And as previous studies have shown, patients are over 50 percent more likely to have serious side effects when taking drugs off-label.

Another antidepressant that’s commonly prescribed, the team found, is amitriptyline to treat migraines. Along with having serious interactions with hundreds of other drugs, it also has a long list of side effects that include… headaches.

The practice is so widespread that right now, one in five prescriptions for adults is off-label — and for kids the number is 90 percent!

And for some, like 37-year-old Woody Witczak, there’s no second chance to rethink their options.

His doctor gave him the antidepressant Zoloft for insomnia. And, after taking the drug for a few weeks, Woody hung himself in his garage.

But despite the off-label free-for-all that’s now going on, it looks like things may be getting even worse.

The FDA is considering allowing drugmakers to actually advertise these off-label uses directly to consumers! And that’s a very big deal, considering that over the years drug companies have paid billions in fines for even being caught whispering that kind of information to doctors.

But now, it’s likely that those TV drug ads will soon be able to pitch us risky meds for most any condition under the sun. IBS meds for losing weight, blood thinners for toenail fungus — the sky’s the limit!

The Consumers Union even started up a petition against the proposed rule, saying that this new advertising plan is one of the most lucrative ideas that could ever fall in Big Pharma’s lap. And considering that drugmakers spent a whopping $5.2 billion to sell us its meds last year alone, it’s obvious that drug advertising pays — and that even more will be filling the airwaves.

But aside from locating the mute button on the remote, you also need to ask your doctor if any drug he prescribes you is being given off-label. If so, ask him why he thinks it will help you and what the drug was actually approved for.

The answer may be quite shocking.

“‘Off-label’ antidepressant use is common, but is it safe?” Alan Mozes, February 23, 2017, CBS News, cbsnews.com