Schizophrenia is a chronic, severe, disabling brain disorder that interferes with the way a person interprets reality. People with schizophrenia sometimes hear voices or see things that others do not, become paranoid that people are plotting against them, and experience cognitive deficits and social withdrawal. These and other symptoms make it difficult for them to have positive relationships with others. It is different from split or multiple personality disorders.
The cause of schizophrenia is unknown. Problems with brain structure and chemistry are thought to play a role. There also appears to be a genetic component. People with a parent or sibling with schizophrenia have a 5%-10% chance of developing the disease. This compares to a 1% chance if no relatives have schizophrenia.
Some researchers believe that environmental factors may contribute to the development of schizophrenia. They theorize that a fetal viral infection and/or difficult birth or obstetrical trauma may trigger schizophrenia in people who are predisposed.
A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition. Schizophrenia does not develop because of one risk factor. Rather, it develops because of how your genes and environment interact. You may have a gene that increases your chance of schizophrenia, but may or may not develop the disease based on your environment. Environment in this case means any outside factors like stress or infection. Factors that increase your risk of schizophrenia include:
Men typically develop symptoms in their late teens or early twenties, while onset for women tends to occur in their twenties or thirties. In rare cases, it is seen in childhood.
Symptoms usually start in adolescence or early adulthood. They often appear slowly and become more disturbing and bizarre over time, or they may occur in a matter of weeks or months.
Associated conditions include:
Early diagnosis is extremely important. People who are diagnosed early are able to:
A person must have active symptoms for at least two weeks, and other symptoms for at least six months before a diagnosis can be made. The doctor will rule out other causes such as drug use, medical illness, or a different mental condition.
Schizophrenia is not curable but it is highly treatable. Hospitalization may be required during acute episodes. Symptoms are usually controlled with antipsychotic medications.
Antipsychotic medications work by blocking certain chemicals in the brain. This helps control the abnormal thinking that occurs in people with schizophrenia. Determining a medication plan can be a complicated process. Often medications or dosages need to be changed until the right balance is found. This can take months or even years. Examples of medications include:
Relapse is common, even for patients taking medication. Treatment compliance can be a challenge since people often stop taking their medication when they are feeling better. If you don’t take your medications as prescribed, your doctor may give you a long-acting injection instead of daily pills. The side effects of traditional antipsychotics also can cause people to discontinue treatment. The most common are physical side effects such as:
New medications, called atypical antipsychotics , have fewer side effects, and are better tolerated over long periods of time. However, they may cause weight gain, elevated blood sugar, and elevated serum cholesterol. Examples of these medications include:
Electroconvulsive therapy may be used to treat severe depression, suicidal ideation, or severe psychosis.
Schizophrenia is a lifelong condition. It can be confusing and frightening for the person with the disease and for family members. Individual and family therapy can address:
If you are diagnosed with schizophrenia, follow your doctor's instructions .
American Psychiatric Association
National Institute of Mental Health
World Fellowship for Schizophrenia and Allied Disorders
Canadian Psychiatric Association
Mental Health Canada
American Psychiatric Association website. Available at: http://www.psych.org .
The causes of schizophrenia. Schizophrenia.com website. Available at: http://www.schizophrenia.com/hypo.php . Accessed April 1, 2009.
Electroconvulsive therapy for schizophrenia. (2005 review update). Cochrane website. Available at: http://www.cochrane.org/reviews/en/ab000076.html . Accessed May 6, 2008.
Evidence based treatment for schizophrenia: information for patients and other supporters. American Psychiatric Association website. Available at: http://www.psych.org/MainMenu/Research/PracticeResearchNetworkandHealthServicesResearch/PostersPresentationsandNewsletters/PRNDatagrams/SchizophreniaFamilyBrochure.aspx . Accessed April 1, 2009.
McIntyre JS, Charles SC, et al. Treating schizophrenia: a quick reference guide. 2nd ed. American Psychiatric Association website. Available at: http://www.psych.org/psych_pract/treatg/quick_ref_guide/Schizophrenia_QRG.pdf . Accessed March 17, 2007.
Moore DP, Jefferson JW. Handbook of Medical Psychiatry . 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2004.
National Institute of Mental Health website. Available at: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/ .
Professional Guide to Diseases , 9th ed. Ambler, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2009.
Schizophrenia. Mayo Clinic website. Available at: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/schizophrenia/DS00196 . Accessed May 6, 2008.
Schizophrenia. National Institute of Mental Health website. Available at: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/publicat/schizoph.cfm . Accessed on March 17, 2007.
World Fellowship for Schizophrenia and Allied Disorders website. Available at: http://world-schizophrenia.org .
Last reviewed April 2009 by Rosalyn Carson-DeWitt, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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