Since moving to a strictly outpatient consulting practice, I have been amazed at the number of women who are taking bupropion despite the above contraindication. I have probable seen 50 women who were under my care in this situation. In other words, I did not prescribe the bupropion and before seeing this would not have considered prescribing against an FDA contraindication. The patients I see often have additional contraindications including a history of seizures, sedative hypnotic drug withdrawal, or alcohol withdrawal. Seizures are the final common pathway for this subset of contraindications. I have never really observed a seizure from bupropion and the vast majority of the patients with the contraindications have never had a seizure. I have certainly observed and treated seizures in inpatient settings and understand that there is a low but significant risk of mortality with seizures. I have also not observed a significant complication of seizures, but at the time I worked in an inpatient hospital environment with rapid access to nursing staff, medications, and experts. None of the patients that I have initiated treatment on with bupropion have reported seizures, but I was strictly following the contraindication as listed in the FDA package insert.
My dilemma in this situation is always whether or not to continue the bupropion, especially when the patient tells me that it is the only medication that has been effective for them. Patients who are seen in their late thirties or later generally have been tried on numerous antidepressants from several classes and that complicates the clinical picture. Most of them have never seen a psychiatrist and all of the medication trials have been done by primary care physicians. It is common to see SSRI and bupropion combinations initiated by nonpsychiatrists. In my current capacity, I am not treating any of these patients long term. I see them anywhere from 1 to 3 months and at that time they return to see their personal physician or psychiatrist. I try to contact their personal psychiatrist about the issue but communication among physicians is often difficult to complete.
As I began to see more and more of these patients my first question was a scientific one. I was aware of the the trials that lead to the decision about eating disorders. There were all based on immediate release preparations rather than the sustained release (SR) or extended release (XL) versions. It certainly is possible that I am only seeing the success stories and that the patients with seizure related complications never come to my attention, but the practice of prescribing bupropion to a population that the FDA considers high risk seemed to be on the rise rather than decreasing. Is it possible that all of the other prescribers had also not heard of this complication. I knew that most of the patients were never apprised of the contraindication. I know that because I had them read the contraindication section of the package insert for themselves. Most would say that nobody have ever told them about this especially the part about any prior diagnosis of anorexia nervosa or bulimia. It is difficult to tell a 45 year old woman who had bulimia nervosa in college and recovered that the bupropion that she has been taking for the last 10 years without any side effects needs to be stopped because of this contraindication. The psychiatrists I talked with all minimized the wording in the warning. They ignored the part about "prior diagnosis". In fact some initiated treatment as the patient was completing treatment in a specialized eating disorders program.
I turned to the FDA web site for additional guidance on the agencies definition of contraindication. Was it as relative as these psychiatrists were telling me? It turns out the definitions used by the FDA in package inserts are defined in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). The section defining contraindications follows (p. 6 of 18):
(5) 4 Contraindications. This section must describe any situations in which the drug should not be used because the risk of use (e.g., certain potentially fatal adverse reactions) clearly outweighs any possible therapeutic benefit. Those situations include use of the drug in patients who, because of their particular age, sex, concomitant therapy, disease state, or other condition, have a substantial risk of being harmed by the drug and for whom no potential benefit makes the risk acceptable. Known hazards and not theoretical possibilities must be listed (e.g., if severe hypersensitivity to the drug has not been demonstrated, it should not be listed as a contraindication). If no contraindications are known, this section must state "None."
People seem to think that there is room for interpreting this definition of contraindication and it does beyond the APA Ethics Committee. I got the same opinion from an attorney. I also consulted a national expert on eating disorders. That expert opined that the contraindication was relative in both a history of eating disorders and acute eating disorders. The expert also had inside knowledge of why the FDA might have issued the contraindication in the context of scant evidence.
I have previously posted that the FDA seems to exhibit some biases when it comes to psychiatric disorders. In some cases they seem to not consider the severity of the the disorder in considering contraindications. There should be no question that eating disorders and depression are very serious conditions, serious enough that therapeutic options may include some risk.
In the meantime, I have decided to take some action. The FDA web site is a wall with no way in for people like me with a legitimate problem. I sent letters out to the US Senators from my state to try to find a way in. My goal is to get this contraindication taken out so it reflects current clinical practice and the experience of depressed patients with both a past history of an eating disorder or an eating disorder.
If you are a person with that history or a psychiatrist who prescribes bupropion in the face of this contraindication, please join me in advocating for this change.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA
1: Dunner DL, Zisook S, Billow AA, Batey SR, Johnston JA, Ascher JA. A prospective safety surveillance study for bupropion sustained-release in the treatment of depression. J Clin Psychiatry. 1998 Jul;59(7):366-73. PubMed PMID: 9714265.
2: Horne RL, Ferguson JM, Pope HG Jr, Hudson JI, Lineberry CG, Ascher J, Cato A. Treatment of bulimia with bupropion: a multicenter controlled trial. J Clin Psychiatry. 1988 Jul;49(7):262-6. PubMed PMID: 3134343.