Ambien Abuse: A Guide to Treatment and Recovery

Zolpidem – the generic name for the brand name drug Ambien – is used to treat insomnia. It is a sedative-hypnotic that slows brain activity and encourages sleep. While effective for short-term use, long-term use of Ambien can lead to tolerance, overuse, and addiction.

How Does Ambien Work?

Ambien works by increasing levels of inhibitory neurotransmitters within the brain. These are chemicals that slow brain function. The effects of Ambien can be very helpful for people suffering from insomnia; however, some people abuse Ambien for these same sedating effects.

It is best to only use Ambien for short periods of time. The effectiveness of Ambien begins to lessen after using the drug for two weeks or longer. Because Ambien begins to become less effective after extended use, some people begin to use higher doses than prescribed, or use the drug more frequently than they are instructed to do so by their doctor. Using high doses of Ambien for an extended period of time increases the risk of physical dependence on and addiction to the drug.

Effects of Ambien

Ambien can cause various side effects. Common effects of zolpidem include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Difficulties with balance
  • Nausea
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Gas
  • Heartburn
  • Changes in appetite
  • Shaking
  • Odd dreams
  • Dry mouth
  • Ear ringing, pain, or itchiness
  • Red eyes
  • Muscle aches
  • Heavy menstrual bleeding

Abusing Ambien significantly increases the risk of overdose. Symptoms of Ambien overdose include:
  • Coma
  • Extreme drowsiness
  • Dangerously slow breathing or heartbeat

Overuse of Ambien can suppress respiration, leading to coma or death. Ambien is thought to be somewhat safer than other CNS depressants because it acts on different parts of the brain; however, abuse and overuse of this drug still carry some of the same risks. Risks associated with Ambien abuse increase when the drug is mixed with other medications or alcohol.

Ambien Addiction

Ambien addict about to taking pills he is holding in his handsMany people who abuse Ambien were originally prescribed the drug by a doctor to treat insomnia. Once tolerance to the drug begins to develop, it can be tempting to overuse the drug. This overuse, even if one has a prescription for the drug, constitutes abuse, and it is often the first stepping stone to addiction.

Some people attempt to self-medicate conditions like insomnia or anxiety by using illicit Ambien. Others may get Ambien from a friend or family member and begin using the drug for recreational purposes. Any use of a prescription medication like Ambien by someone who is not prescribed the drug constitutes abuse.

Sedative abuse is one of the most common illicit uses of prescription medications. Use of Ambien is most common among young people. The 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that about 330,000 people in the US used sedatives for nonmedical purposes that year. The age group with the largest percentage of illicit sedative users were young people who were 18-25.

Stopping Use of the Drug

Withdrawal from sedatives like Ambien should always take place in a medically supervised environment. Sedative withdrawal can involve life-threatening symptoms, and medical care is needed to monitor for complications.

During Ambien detox, heart and lung functions are monitored, and medical staff members watch for any health complications that may occur. If a person has overdosed on Ambien, the drug may be removed from the stomach and gastrointestinal tract.

In some instances, the dosage of Ambien may be tapered gradually over time. This is particularly common if large doses of the drug have been used with frequency over a long period of time. This type of a tapering schedule can minimize some of the withdrawal symptoms, and prevent complications that can occur when stopping use of the drug abruptly. Switching to a different sedative with a longer half-life can be helpful while tapering dosage of Ambien. Any tapering schedule should not be attempted alone; it should only be done under the close supervision of a medical professional.

Treatment for Ambien Addiction

man waking up in treatment for his Ambien addictionBecause sedative detox can be dangerous, recovery from sedative addiction requires professional help. Addiction to sedatives like Ambien is treated with behavioral therapies. Therapy – both individual and in a group setting – can help an individual cease drug use and remain sober by addressing any underlying issues that may have led to drug use, and identifying behaviors that are contributing to the drug use problem.

Various approaches to therapy have been shown to be effective in treating addiction, and the most effective treatment plan is tailored to the specific individual. Treatment programs may utilize Cognitive Behavioral TherapyContingency Management approaches, or various other methods to form a program that is right for the individual in need of care.

Therapy may take place in an inpatient or outpatient setting. Inpatient care, also called residential treatment, offers 24-hour supervision and care in an environment that is wholly focused on recovery. This type of setting can be very helpful for individuals who lack a strong support system at home or who struggle to maintain sobriety even after past treatment attempts.

Many people begin treatment in an inpatient program and then transition to outpatient treatment. An outpatient treatment program may be sufficient care in some cases; this type of treatment is more affordable, and allows the individual to stay in closer contact with friends and loved ones, which can be beneficial to the recovery process.

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