Also known by the brand name Abilify, the prescription drug aripiprazole is traditionally used for treating schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. UK medical professionals warn, however, that the drug can produce unintended side effects, ranging from problem gambling and compulsive shopping to a high libido and binge eating.
Aripiprazole Linked To Problem Gambling Behavior
The UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) issued updated guidance on the antipsychotic medication aripiprazole, reminding prescribers of its known links to gambling addiction and other impulse control disorders. This update came on Dec. 18 following a 2023 rise in reported side effects.
In the UK, Aripiprazole is approved to treat schizophrenia in adults and adolescents at least 15 years old. Additionally, it’s used to treat manic episodes in teenagers and adults living with bipolar disorder. (In the US, it’s also approved for adults with major depression and children with Tourette’s and autism.) For some patients, however, it can cause compulsive behaviors.
Patients are recommended to contact their doctor if they notice any urges or cravings unusual to them, including:
- excessive eating
- compulsive spending
- abnormally high sex drive
Gambling Addiction Side Effects Are Rare But Serious
MHRA Chief Safety Officer Alison Cave noted that when compared to total prescribed patients, the reported cases linking Aripiprazole to gambling addiction are few. Still, the consequences are plenty significant, she said:
“Aripiprazole is an effective and acceptably safe drug for many people. We are urging all patients to continue to take it and to speak to your doctor if you have any concerns. Please make sure you tell your doctor before starting the medicine if you have a personal history of excessive gambling or any other impulsive behaviours.”
Health organizations say that although impulse control disorders are rare, they’ve been a well-recognized side effect for over a decade.
Aripiprazole acts as a dopamine agonist — a class of medication known for producing impulse-driven side effects in patients. In 2007, the MHRA issued a special warning against this drug group’s pathological gambling and hypersexuality side effects. Five years later, gambling was officially included as a possible aripiprazole side effect in 2012, while it took until 2018 for “other impulse control disorders” to be added to aripiprazole’s Patient Information Leaflet.
It wasn’t until 2023, however, that professionals began receiving more firsthand patient accounts of these side effects — all thanks to a helpful service that allows patients to self-report their medication experiences.
UK Patients Can Report Side Effects Via MHRA Yellow Card Scheme
In addition to advising patients to present potential side effects to their doctor or pharmacist, the UK encourages patients to report prescription drug side effects via the handy MHRA Yellow Card program.
The MHRA then considers these reports, constantly studying each drug’s safety and efficacy. In total, the program has received 69 reports linking problem gambling and other compulsive disorders to aripiprazole within the past 14 years. After noticing a consistent uptick in suspected cases, the MHRA flagged the findings with gambling clinics this past March, asking them to submit any of its own suspected cases. This resulted in 32 reports between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31 of 2023.
Although the exact proportion of prescribed patients who have experienced such side effects is unknown, it is likely far higher than the 69 reported cases thus far.
UK doctors prescribed aripiprazole over 1.5 million times between Oct. 2022 and Sept. 2023, making it especially important for professionals to continue exploring its potential side effects via Yellow Card reports.
Abilify Patients Unaware Of Potential Gambling Side Effects
The MHRA’s Yellow Card findings suggest that both patients with and without problem gambling history are susceptible to these compulsive side effects. Most patients noted, however, that urges typically subsided with a reduced prescription dose or by stopping the treatment.
Prof. Henrietta Bowden-Jones, director of the National Problem Gambling Clinic, says the NPGC has seen numerous patients who have been entirely unaware of Aripiprazole’s potential compulsive side effects.
“Many [patients] had not undergone periodic reviews to assess any new symptoms of gambling disorder or other compulsive behaviours that were not present before the prescription started.”
She cited a lack of transparency from health service providers as a primary point of concern, saying:
“Clinicians prescribing Aripiprazole must commit to consistently alert patients about these potential risks, both during the initial prescription and follow-up reviews.”
Without such transparency, patients often end up learning about the darker side of this prescription once the damage is already done.
UK Woman Suffers Aripiprazole Shopping Addiction
One UK woman, Warwickshire resident Abbi Hoxleigh, is a prime example of the adverse effects aripiprazole can have. She decided to speak to BBC in an effort to spread awareness about her experience and the drug’s potential side effects.
Hoxleigh developed a shopping addiction after being prescribed aripiprazole this past September, spending £10,000 in just two months. Half of that spending occurred during the month she was taking the prescription, and the other half came in October as she began coming off the medicine. At the height of her problem, she spent over £600 on clothing, furniture, and supermarket goods in a single day.
Hoxleigh, who is living with post-traumatic stress disorder, has struggled with mental health problems for over 30 years. Additional hardships came in 2020 when her mother died of COVID. Then after launching her own PR firm and hitting a pinnacle with work-related stress, Hoxleigh was prescribed aripiprazole. The 51-year-old says she quickly began noticing the side effects. First came an unusual numbness in her muscles and limbs. Next came her new shopping addiction.
“I would go out of my way to get to the supermarket on two buses or walk when usually my food is delivered. A friend said that when they bumped into me in the supermarket, I grabbed items almost robotically,” she said.
Although her newly formed behavior forced her to delay moving into a new home as originally planned, her financial stability protected her from a potentially ruinous compulsion. Hoxleigh worries, however, that a lack of financial resources will put younger patients and low-income individuals at greater risk of harm. She echoed the MHRA’s guidance, urging patients to be aware of the potential risks and report any side effects.
While this renewed attention is another valiant step in the UK’s quest to produce better-informed patients and more knowledgeable medical professionals, the medical community still has a long way to go. The Royal College of Psychiatrists said it is currently considering this advice. Meanwhile, the organization urges patients to consult their doctor before making any medication adjustments.