Between 2006 and 2011, about 38 million people in the United States alone were prescribed drugs containing the active ingredient in Ambien. Since then, millions more have taken the medication designed to treat sleeping troubles.
While the drug has helped countless Americans combat insomnia, Ambien has also taken a toll on countless others. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration1 estimates that more than a half a million people are currently abusing Ambien and other sedatives.
Aside from addiction, Ambien carries other frightening side effects, including hallucinations and sleepwalking. Patients taking the drug have fought back against the makers of Ambien by filing lawsuits and raising awareness about possible overdose and withdrawal symptoms associated with the sedative.
History of Ambien
Some researchers estimate that more than 60 million people suffer from insomnia in the United States. Sleep issues could account for nearly $18 billion in lost productivity in the U.S. every year. That’s why it is not surprising people have been trying to find a solution for sleep troubles for centuries.
Ambien, also known by its generic name zolpidem, was first developed in the 1980s by scientists at a French company that has now become Sanofi-Aventis. It was first launched in France in 1988. Five years later, it was approved2 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in the U.S.
When it reached the market in the U.S., another sedative called Halcion was getting criticized over claims that the drug had concerning side effects. This gave Ambien the opportunity to enter the market as a safer alternative to Halcion, according to The New Yorker3.
Ambien quickly became a best-selling drug. Drugmaker Sanofi-Aventis estimated Ambien had been taken 12 billion times around the world by 2006. It earned the drugmaker two billion dollars a year in sale in the United States.
In 2011, there were about 43 million prescriptions for some form of zolpidem. The drug became generic in 2007 after the patent ran out.
How Does Ambien Work?
Ambien is in the class of medication called nonbenzodiazepines, although they’re colloquially referred to as Z-drugs. These drugs target GABA receptors to increase its effect on the nervous system. GABA is a neurotransmitter throughout the nervous system that plays a role in different conditions, such as insomnia, depression, anxiety, and more.
By binding to the receptors, Ambien allows more chemicals that relax you to enter the brain. The effects of Ambien are typically felt within a half hour to two hours after taking the drug.
It also comes in different iterations. For example, Ambien CR uses an extended-release formula that induces sleep quickly and helps the user maintain the sleep throughout the night.
Common Ambien Side Effects
According to Sanofi-Aventis, four side effects are the most common among Ambien users. These include (but are not limited to):
Serious Side Effects Associated with Ambien
Ambien is also connected to more serious side effects. These include:
- Abnormal thoughts or behaviors, such as;
- suicidal thoughts or actions
- Falls resulting in injuries
- Memory loss
- Severe allergic reactions, such as;
- swelling of the tongue or throat
- breathing troubles
Symptoms of Ambien Withdrawal
Those who become addicted have a hard time getting off the drug.
In one case study published in 2000 in the Journal of Clinical Neuropharmacology4, a 43-year-old woman experienced withdrawal symptoms after she stopped taking Ambien. She suffered an epileptic attack after abruptly ending her abuse of the drug.
The types of withdrawal symptoms associated with Ambien range from mild to extreme. Here is just a partial list of the withdrawal symptoms:
- Rebound insomnia
- Stomach cramps
- Panic attacks
- Suicidal thoughts or actions
Timeline of Ambien Withdrawal
The timeline for withdrawal from Ambien depends on the person, dosage, and version of the drug taken. Most symptoms last anywhere from a few days to several weeks.
An individual will usually notice mild withdrawal symptoms within the first 24 hours after the last dose. Symptoms include difficulty focusing and impairment. After the first 24 hours, the symptoms will become more severe. Rebound insomnia may come on strong. Some will notice physical side effects like heart palpitations and seizures as well.
Symptoms can peak anywhere between three days and a week. Cravings for Ambien will be at their strongest.
Within a week or two, symptoms will lessen. However, psychological symptoms can continue for up to two weeks. In severe cases, symptoms can continue for months after stopping treatment with Ambien.
Dangers of Ambien Overdose and Addiction
Ambien is not designed for long-term treatment of insomnia due to the addictive nature of the drug. As Ambien and other zolpidem drugs have been prescribed to millions of people, access to the drug has become easier. This has led to an overall increase in Ambien abuse over the years.
Research has confirmed that those who take Ambien may become chemically dependent on the drug if taken longer than a few weeks.
Addiction carries other problems as well. When combined with alcohol and other medications, Ambien can cause serious medical problems in patients.
Over time a person may develop a tolerance to the drug, prompting the individual to take too much. Taking too much Ambien can also result in an overdose.
A person who is overdosing on Ambien may experience blackouts, slowed breathing, slowed heartbeat, severe drowsiness, and worse. Those who are older than 65 or have had a history of substance abuse have an increased risk of overdose.
Ambien Targeted in Past Lawsuits
Sanofi-Aventis has been the target of lawsuits in the past.
Many patients say they have experienced memory loss and sleepwalking that resulted in criminal acts or injuries while taking the drug. A class-action lawsuit was brought against the makers of Ambien after people were claiming to have done unusual or harmful activities while in a hypnotic state.
Although no compensation was awarded to the plaintiffs, the lawsuits ultimately led the FDA to include stronger warnings about operating vehicles after taking Ambien.
Despite the updated labeling, patients who have suffered from adverse side effects and addiction or overdose of the drug have continued to explore their legal options against Sanofi-Aventis.
Those who have been affected by the drug should contact an experienced lawyer to find out whether they have a case against Sanofi-Aventis.