Antipsychotic medications are proven effective in treating acute psychosis and reducing the risk of future psychotic episodes. For example, the treatment of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder with psychotic features thus has two main phases: an acute phase, when higher doses of medication might be necessary in order to treat psychotic symptoms, followed by a maintenance phase, which could be lifelong. During the maintenance phase, the medication dosage is gradually reduced to the minimum required to prevent further episodes. If symptoms reappear on a lower dosage, a temporary increase in dosage may help prevent a relapse.
Even with continued treatment of the more chronic or recurring psychotic disorders, some patients experience relapses. By far, though, the highest relapse rates for such disorders are seen when medication is discontinued. The large majority of patients experience substantial improvement when treated with antipsychotic agents. Some patients, however, do not respond to medications, and a few may seem not to need them.
Antipsychotic medications are the cornerstone in the management of psychosis. They have been available since the mid-1950s, and although antipsychotics do not cure the illness, they greatly reduce the symptoms and allow the patient to function better, have better quality of life, and enjoy an improved outlook. The choice and dosage of medication is individualized and is best done by a physician who is well trained and experienced in treating severe mental illness.
The first antipsychotic was discovered by accident and then used for schizophrenia. This was chlorpromazine (Thorazine), which was soon followed by medications such as haloperidol (Haldol), fluphenazine (Prolixin), thiothixene (Navane), trifluoperazine (Stelazine), perphenazine (Trilafon), and thioridazine (Mellaril). These medications have become known as "neuroleptics" because, although effective in treating positive symptoms (for example, acute symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions, thought disorders, loose associations, ambivalence, or mood swings/emotional lability), they cause side effects, many of which affect the neurologic (nervous) system. Examples of such neurologic side effects include muscle stiffness or rigidity, painful spasms, restlessness, tremors, and muscle twitches. These older medications are thought to be not as effective against so-called negative symptoms such as decreased motivation and lack of emotional expressiveness.
Since 1989, a new class of antipsychotics (atypical antipsychotics) has been used. At clinically effective doses, none (or very few) of these neurological side effects of traditional antipsychotics, which often affect the extrapyramidal nerve tracts, are observed.
Clozapine (Clozaril), the first of the new class, is the only agent that has been shown to be effective in situations where other antipsychotics have failed. Its use is not associated with extrapyramidal side effects, but it does produce other side effects, including a possible decrease in the number of white blood cells. Therefore, blood cell counts need to be monitored every week during the first six months of treatment and then every two weeks to detect this side effect early if it occurs.
Other atypical antipsychotics include risperidone (Risperdal), olanzapine (Zyprexa), quetiapine (Seroquel), ziprasidone (Geodon), aripiprazole (Abilify), paliperidone (Invega), asenapine (Saphris), iloperidone (Fanapt), and lurasidone (Latuda). The use of these medications has allowed successful treatment and release back to their homes and the community for many people suffering from schizophrenia.
Although more effective and better tolerated, the use of these agents is also associated with side effects, and current medical practice is developing better ways of understanding these effects, identifying people at risk, and monitoring for the emergence of complications.
Most of these medications take two to four weeks to take effect. Patience is required if the dose needs to be adjusted, the specific medication changed, or another medication added. In order to be able to determine whether an antipsychotic is effective or not, it should be tried for at least six to eight weeks (or even longer with clozapine).
Since people with a psychotic disorder are at increased risk of also developing depression, medications that address that symptom may be of great benefit as well. Serotonergic medications like fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil), citalopram (Celexa), and escitalopram (Lexapro) are often prescribed because of their effectiveness and low incidence of side effects. Other often-prescribed antidepressant medications for the depression that can be associated with psychotic disorders include venlafaxine (Effexor), duloxetine (Cymbalta), desvenlafaxine (Pristiq), and buproprion (Wellbutrin).
Because the risk of relapse of illness is higher when antipsychotic medications are taken irregularly or discontinued, it is important that people with a psychotic disorder follow a treatment plan developed in collaboration with their doctors and with their families. The treatment plan will involve taking the prescribed medication in the correct amount and at the times recommended, attending follow-up appointments, and following other treatment recommendations.
People with psychosis often do not believe that they are ill or that they need treatment. Other possible things that may interfere with the treatment plan include side effects from medications, substance abuse, negative attitudes toward treatment from families and friends, or even unrealistic expectations. When present, these issues need to be acknowledged and addressed for the treatment to be successful.