Cases That Test Your Skills

An unexplained exacerbation of depression, anxiety, and panic

Author and Disclosure Information

Mr. P, age 33, has multiple panic attacks every day. His depression and anxiety, which had been fairly well-controlled, are getting worse. How would you help him?



CASE Depression, anxiety, and panic attacks

At the urging of his parents Mr. P, age 33, presents to the partial hospitalization program (PHP) for worsening depression and anxiety, daily panic attacks with accompanying diaphoresis and headache, and the possibility that he may have taken an overdose of zolpidem. Mr. P denies taking an intentional overdose of zolpidem, claiming instead that he was having a sleep-walking episode and did not realize how many pills he took.

In addition to daily panic attacks, Mr. P reports having trouble falling asleep, overwhelming sadness, and daily passive suicidal ideation without a plan or active intent.

Mr. P cannot identify a specific trigger to this most recent exacerbation of depressed/anxious mood, but instead describes it as slowly building over the past 6 to 8 months. Mr. P says the panic attacks occur without warning and states, “I feel like my heart is going to jump out of my chest; I get a terrible headache, and I sweat like crazy. Sometimes I just feel like I’m about to pass out or die.” Although these episodes had been present for approximately 2 years, they now occur almost daily.

HISTORY Inconsistent adherence

For the last year, Mr. P had been taking alprazolam, 0.5 mg twice daily, and paroxetine, 20 mg/d, and these medications provided moderate relief of his depressive/anxious symptoms. However, he stopped taking both medications approximately 3 or 4 weeks ago when he ran out. He also takes propranolol, 20 mg/d, sporadically, for hypertension. In the past, he had been prescribed carvedilol, clonidine, and lisinopril—all with varying degrees of relief of his hypertension. He denies a family history of hypertension or any other chronic or acute health problems. He reports that he has been sober from alcohol for 19 months but smokes 1 to 2 marijuana cigarettes a day.

EVALUATION Elevated blood pressure and pulse

Mr. P’s physical examination and medical review of systems are unremarkable, except for an elevated blood pressure (190/110 mm Hg) and pulse (92 beats per minute); he also has a headache. A repeat blood pressure test later in the day is 172/94 mm Hg, with a pulse of 100 beats per minute. His urine drug screen is positive only for delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

The author’s observations

A CBC with differential is helpful for ruling out infection and anemia as causes of anxiety and depression.1 In Mr. P’s case, there were no concerning symptoms that pointed to anemia or infection as likely causes of his anxiety, depression, or panic attacks. A TSH level also would be reasonable, because hyperthyroidism can present as anxiety, while hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism each can present as depression.1 However, both Mr. P’s medical history and physical examination were not concerning for thyroid disease, making it unlikely that he had either of those conditions. A review of Mr. P’s medical records indicated that within the past 6 months, his primary care physician (PCP) had ordered a CBC and TSH test; the results of both were within normal limits.

Serum porphyrin tests can exclude porphyria as a contributor to Mr. P’s anxiety and depression. Porphyrias are a group of 8 inherited disorders that involve accumulation of heme precursors (porphyrins) in the CNS and subcutaneous tissue.2 Collectively, porphyrias affect approximately 1 in 200,000 people.2 Anxiety and depression are strongly associated with porphyria, but do not occur secondary to the illness; depression and anxiety appear to be intrinsic personality features in people with porphyria.3 Skin lesions and abdominal pain are the most common symptoms,3 and there is a higher incidence of hypertension in people with porphyria than in the general population.4 Mr. P does not report any heritable disorders, nor does he appear to have any CNS disturbance or unusual cutaneous lesions, which makes it unlikely that this disorder is related to his psychiatric symptoms.

Continue to: A serum metanephrines test measures...


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