It is not intended for long-term use. Physicians have been advised that if their patients continue to need the medication after a few weeks of use, at most, they should take the patient off the medication and find an alternative therapy. Ambien is the brand name for zolpidem, a sleep-inducing medication that in recent years has become more frequently abused. In the past, medical professionals were warned that individuals with a history of addictive behaviors, such as addiction to alcohol or prescription medications, were more likely to become addicted to Ambien. While this is true, a 2011 study published in Behavioral Pharmacology suggests that the hypnotic “high” associated with Ambien abuse can be addictive for people who have not previously displayed addictive propensities for other substances.
When used properly, Ambien helps people with chronic insomnia fall asleep, but is not designed to help them remain asleep. Part of the prescription states that patients prescribed Ambien should only take the medication within one hour of going to bed. However, when Ambien is abused, individuals take the medication in larger doses, without the intention of falling asleep, or with other medications like stimulants or alcohol, which can enhance the drug’s hypnotic effects.
Doctors always prescribe the lowest possible dose of Ambien to their patients, and it is recommended that they monitor their patients for psychological changes or a need for sleep medications for a period beyond 10 days. These can indicate that the individual patient has become addicted to Ambien or could be abusing the drug.
Withdrawal from Ambient
Symptoms of withdrawal from Ambien begin within 48 hours of the final dose. They include:
- Mood swings
- Cravings for Ambien
- Nausea or vomiting
- Abdominal cramps or discomfort
- Uncontrolled crying or depression
- Panic attacks
- Rapid heart rate and breathing
- Rebound insomnia
- Seizures (rare)
Seizures occur in less than 1 percent of withdrawal cases, but they can occur in cases where the individual quits Ambien “cold turkey” or is suddenly unable to satisfy the craving for the drug.
This seems to be connected to benzodiazepine receptors in the brain and changes in pathways related to uptake of this neurotransmitter.
Ambien Withdrawal TimelineWithdrawal symptoms typically lessen or disappear within 1-2 weeks. The most acute withdrawal symptoms typically occur within the first 3-5 days, but psychological withdrawal symptoms can persist for up to two weeks. In some rare cases, an individual may experience insomnia, cravings, panic attacks, and other side effects for months after stopping use of Ambien.
It is difficult to know exactly how long Ambien withdrawal takes for each individual person. A period of 1-2 weeks is average, but several factors can affect how long a person experiences Ambien withdrawal symptoms. These include:
- How long the person took Ambien: When an individual takes Ambien as prescribed for a short period of time, the person is less likely to experience withdrawal symptoms, and those symptoms will not be acute or severe.
- How high the Ambien dose was: If a person takes more Ambien than prescribed, that person is more likely to develop a tolerance to the medication, which means more Ambien is needed to feel “normal.” This can lead to worse physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms.
- Whether or not the Ambien was the extended-release version: Extended-release medications offer a higher dose of the drug than non-extended-release medications. While this means the medication is slowly released into the system when taken normally, forms of abuse allow individuals to bypass the chemicals that slow the release and take a large dose of Ambien all at once. This can lead to much more intense withdrawal symptoms.
- If the individual took other drugs in addition to Ambien: Other medications, alcohol, or illegal drugs can enhance the effects of Ambien, increasing the potential “high.” Withdrawal symptoms are likely to be compounded if the person ceases all drug use at once.
Medications Used to Treat Ambien Withdrawal Symptoms
Although a medical professional may prescribe psychiatric treatments for depression or anxiety related to Ambien withdrawal, there are few drugs that treat the actual withdrawal effects. Anti-seizure medications may be used to help people who suffer seizures during withdrawal. Those suffering severe anxiety or suicidal thoughts are likely to receive short-term prescriptions for mood-stabilizing medications.
Some recent medical research suggests quetiapine, an antipsychotic used to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression, has helped some Ambien withdrawal symptoms. However, there are no recommended prescribing practices around this medication for this purpose yet.
People who wish to stop using Ambien are encouraged to speak to medical professionals about potential withdrawal symptoms. Because of the potential for seizures, some doctors may work with the individual to taper the Ambien dose, rather than stop “cold turkey.” This helps to prevent seizures, and it can also reduce or prevent other withdrawal symptoms.
Additional Help to Stop Abusing the Drug
It is very important for people struggling with Ambien addiction to have solid emotional support while they stop taking this medication. As Ambien is a sedative, medical detox is recommended. While detox is often the starting point for recovery, it does not constitute addiction treatment on its own. Comprehensive treatment must follow.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help these individuals learn better coping skills, and talk therapy can also be helpful when working through psychological problems.
Group therapy can provide another source of emotional support for people struggling with Ambien addiction.