5 Medications Prescribed for Off-label Use


Beta Blockers

beta blockers
Beta blockers, including drugs like atenolol, are frequently prescribed off label to help prevent migraine headaches. Siphotography/Thinkstock

What It Is: A class of drugs that blocks the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and epinephrine from binding to receptors.

What It's Approved to Treat: Heart problems, diabetes, hypertension

Common Off-label Uses: Migraine headaches, generalized anxiety disorder, hyperthyroidism, fibromyalgia, glaucoma, Parkinsonian tremor, atrial fibrillation

Beta blockers, including drugs like acebutolol (Sectral), atenolol (Tenormin) and bisoprolol (Zebeta), work on the beta receptors in the tissues of the body's sympathetic (i.e. "fight or flight") nervous system to inhibit hormones like epinephrine and norepinephrine that are considered stimulating. Doctors have been using them since the early 1960s to treat and prevent heart attacks and reduce blood pressure.

However, because these drugs act on hormones like epinephrine (otherwise known as adrenaline) and cortisol, they can mitigate the physical symptoms associated with these hormones like rapid heart rate, muscle tension and sweating. By preventing stimulating hormones from binding to their designated receptors in the body, those associated physical symptoms of stress simply go away.

Doctors sometimes favor beta blockers over approved anti-anxiety medications because they don't carry any risk of dependence, they're reasonably inexpensive and they have such a profound effect on the physical feelings of panic.

There are, however, potential downsides too: They're not effective for everyone, and one of the long-term side effects is a higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. The drugs also don't address the root cause of anxiety; just the symptoms. And long-term users trying to quit the medication could face severe withdrawal symptoms like blood pressure spikes and increased heart rate [source: Mental Health Daily].