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How to Wean off Ambien

ambienAccording to NPR, approximately 60 million Americans are plagued by insomnia each year, and Ambien is one of the most popular medications prescribed to help individuals fight it.

The medication was prescribed 40 million times in 2011. Although Ambien should not be used for periods of more than 10 days, individuals often ignore this medical advice and take it for longer periods of time. As a result, people may become dependent on the medication and feel they need to continue taking it in order to sleep.

emergency room visits in 2010.

This number was a 220 percent increase from 2005, and 74 percent of the individuals seen were 45 years old or older. In 57 percent of those visits, other drugs (benzodiazepines and narcotic pain relievers) were also involved.

How Does Ambien Work?

Ambien belongs to the sedative-hypnotic family of medications, and it works by essentially slowing down the brain and central nervous system. It activates a certain neurotransmitter in the brain, stopping the overactivity that is believed to be associated with insomnia. Ambien has side effects that may include:

  • Daytime drowsiness, often referred to as feeling hungover
  • Dizziness
  • Hallucinations
  • Sleepwalking
  • Drowsiness while driving
  • Agitation

Ambien has also been related to parasomnia, a disorder characterized by abnormal behaviors while sleeping. It can include nightmares or night terrors, and performing activities such as driving, eating, and sex while asleep. There have been reports of crimes committed while the individual was under the influence of Ambien.

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Is a Loved One Dependent on Ambien?

ambien addiction and treatment optionsWhen individuals become dependent on Ambien, they may find it difficult to stop taking the medication. They may feel they need to continue taking the medication at their prescribed dose, or at a higher dose, to achieve the same effect. Some individuals may abuse Ambien by using the medication for purposes other than what it is intended for, such as:

  • To feel “high” or feel pleasure from taking the medication
  • To relieve stress or relax
  • To increase one’s sex drive

Those individuals who have experienced a dependence on alcohol or other drugs in the past are especially at risk for dependence on Ambien. In such cases, when speaking to a physician about starting Ambien, the individual should inform the physician of past dependence issues.

If individuals have become dependent on Ambien, they may begin to exhibit the following behaviors:

  • Inability to stop or limit Ambien use
  • Engaging in risky behaviors while taking Ambien
  • Irresponsibility in work, school, or social situations
  • Absences from work or school
  • Sudden behavioral changes
  • Cancelling social activities
  • Cravings for Ambien
  • Continued use despite problems with relationships
  • Developing a tolerance to Ambien and increasing the dose to achieve desired effects
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms

When people have become dependent on Ambien, they may feel the need to take a higher dose of the medication to achieve the same effect. In this case, individuals may accidentally overdose. Some symptoms of overdose include:

  • Excessive drowsiness
  • Slow or absent breathing
  • Slow heart rate
  • Coma, in severe cases

Taking Ambien with alcohol or other drugs may increase these symptoms or dangerously increase the risk of overdose.

If individuals have been taking Ambien for more than a week or two, they should not attempt to stop taking Ambien on their own. They should speak with their physician regarding discontinuing Ambien, due to the possibility of withdrawal symptoms.

Withdrawal symptoms can range from mild anxiety and fidgeting to severe withdrawal symptoms, and they may occur even if the medication was taken for a short time. Some of the symptoms individuals may experience include:

  • Abdominal cramps
  • Emotional distress
  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Increased sweating
  • Tremors
  • Rebound insomnia
  • Anxiety, possible panic attacks
  • Confusion
  • Cravings for Ambien
  • Flushing
  • Lightheadedness
  • Convulsions and seizures, in severe cases.

How Does a Person Wean off Ambien?

If appropriate, the supervising physician may suggest a tapered dose of Ambien to wean the individual off the medication. For example, the physician may instruct the patient to take the prescribed dose for a week. The next week, the physician may order the patient to take half the prescribed dose. Then the physician may suggest the patient take half the dose every other day, and then space the doses out further, until the person has successfully – and safely – weaned off the medication. Afterward, the physician may suggest alternatives to Ambien, such as melatonin or other natural means of encouraging sleep.

If the above process would not be appropriate, the individual may benefit from medical detox in a professional facility. Since withdrawal symptoms are often unpleasant, professional staff members can help keep the person comfortable. The medical detox process may take a few days as the medication works its way out of the individual’s system.

In an article published by National Center for Biotechnology Information, an individual who was medically detoxing from Ambien was give low doses of clonazepam for five days to help ease withdrawal symptoms. The individual was eventually started on quetiapine to help with sleep, and after six months, had not experience a relapse.
It’s Not Too Late to Get Help for Ambien Abuse

Comprehensive Care

In an inpatient addiction treatment program, clients will not only receive medical detox, but will also take part in therapy. Detox must always be followed with comprehensive therapeutic treatment if ongoing substance abuse was an issue. Since addiction changes thought and behavior processes in the brain, therapy helps to rewire those processes so true recovery can take hold. Therapy also helps individuals to develop coping skills that do not include the use of Ambien.

For many individuals, substance abuse co-occurs with mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder. In such cases, treatment for co-occurring disorders is necessary to effectively address all conditions. This kind of multipronged treatment approach is beneficial no matter which appeared first, the addiction or mental illness.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about a third of those with mental illness also struggle with substance abuse. In addition, about a third of individuals who are dependent on alcohol, and about half of individuals dependent on drugs, also experience mental illnesses.

Regardless of the drug of abuse, or the presence of co-occurring mental health issues, post-treatment support is critical to sustained recovery. Ongoing outpatient therapy will help individuals retain the skills learned while in a formal rehab program, and group therapy may continue to be beneficial, as it helps recovered individuals to maintain peer accountability as well as support. Other post-treatment services may provide assistance with housing, employment, and family and relationship therapy. Self-help groups, such as Narcotics AnonymousSMART Recovery, or Double Trouble in Recovery, may also be helpful as ongoing forms of support for those in recovery from Ambien abuse.