This entry was posted in Mental Health on March 12, 2012 and modified on April 30, 2019

Depakote is a brand name for valproic acid, an anticonvulsant drug that is commonly used as a mood stabilizer to treat bipolar disorder in both adults and children.

Depakote can be dispensed as tablets, “sprinkles,” a liquid, and an injectable. It was originally discovered in the late 1800s by a scientist researching forms of valerian (the plant from which valium is made). For nearly 100 years, its medical uses were not known and it was just used in research.

What is Depakote prescribed for?

Depakote, or any other brand of valproic acid, has both off label and FDA-approved uses. Originally prescribed for seizure disorders due to its anticonvulsant properties, valproic acid was FDA approved for the treatment of a wide variety of seizure disorders in both adults and children up until late 1995. In 1996, Depakote was also approved for treating migraine headaches as well, and some research has been done exploring the use of this drug for some cancers and HIV.

In late 1995, FDA approval was gained for the use of valproic acid in treating bipolar disorder. Prior to this valproic acid was prescribed for bipolar disorder as an “off label” use. Since 1995, however this indication of Depakote has been FDA approved. In fact, valproic acid is currently one of the most commonly prescribed medications used for bipolar disorder.

What Does it Do?

Valproic acid is an anticonvulsant drug that seems to have an impact on the functioning of the neurotransmitter GABA in the brain. Although valproic acid is not a central nervous system depressant (like alcohol or valium), it can be thought of as having a calming or soothing effect upon the nervous system. That’s why it seems to help with such different conditions as migraines, seizures and manic episodes. It is also classified as a mood stabilizer and seems to be effective in reducing the frequency and severity of manic episodes.

What are the Most Common Side Effects?

Unfortunately, valproic acid does have a number of common side effects that range from annoying to quite serious. It is common to experience:

  • Weight gain or loss
  • Stomach upset including diarrhea
  • Dizziness
  • Daytime Sleepiness
  • Hair loss
  • Tremors or shaking of your hands or fingers

If any of these side effects are distressing enough to make you consider not taking your medication, talk with your doctor. There may be alternatives, or other helpful hints that will reduce or alleviate the side effects completely.

Special Concerns

One important special concern is that it is not safe for pregnant women to take this medication. It has been shown to cause birth defects. Most doctors recommend that women of childbearing age either use birth control while on Depakote, or change to a different medication if trying to conceive. In addition, doctors believe that this medication can be passed to a baby if the mother is breastfeeding. Depakote could damage the baby’s liver, and is not recommended for children less than two years old. Thus it is not recommended that women on Depakote breastfeed. Again, either discuss using a different medication with your doctor, or consider bottle feeding.

Be aware that doctors often use blood tests to check the level of valproic acid in your body. Your doctor will use the test results to adjust your dosage. For someone who is fearful or hates having blood drawn (children or teens sometimes have a hard time tolerating blood tests), this may make using Depakote difficult.

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