Over four billion prescriptions are filled at pharmacies across the United States each year, and this amount is only expected to increase.1 In fact, consumer spending on prescription medications is expected to reach nearly $610 billion by the year 2021.2
The vast majority of these prescriptions do something very beneficial for a person in need. Some may combat an infection. Others may quell a sensation of pain. Others might help to reduce congestion or sneezing. All in all, these drugs are very useful. Some might say that they’re vital.
But unfortunately, some of these prescription drugs can do more than alleviate illness. Some can actually cause a different illness, particularly if they’re taken in ways that aren’t recommended.
Sleep is a vital part of life, so when insomnia lasts for more than a few days or weeks, many people seek relief. Medications can sometimes play a role in that process, and Ambien (generic name: zolpidem) is just one prescription drug doctors can provide to people who need to sleep.
Ambien is generally considered safe, simply because it’s effective. People who take this drug tend to fall asleep swiftly, and they may stay asleep for a long period of time.Doctors often prefer Ambien to benzodiazepine medications like Valium, Xanax, or Klonopin, because it has been advertised as less addictive than benzodiazepines. Newer research, however, shows that Ambien may lead to dependence and addiction.5
Ambien contains zolpidem. This drug calms electrical impulses in the brain, which quiets the conscious mind to make sleep easier. This drug is known as a hypnotic drug, due to the way it alters brain function.
Some people find that they don’t get sleepy when they take Ambien. Instead, they have an opposite reaction. Rather than feeling tired, they feel energized and awake. They may even feel a little loopy or high. Sometimes, they may hallucinate, behave strangely, or experience episodic memory loss.5
This drug may even cause a mild rush of mania, and it may cause temporary, pleasant feelings that leads to a temptation to use this drug again. People who use Ambien and run out of this drug may find that they struggle with withdrawal symptoms. That’s a hallmark of addiction.
People who take Ambien per the advice of a doctor and who only take the drug for a short period of time may not be at a high risk for this cycle of addiction. Thankfully, there are no hidden substances in Ambien that have been linked to physical harm, but those who abuse the substance may find that they struggle with addiction.
Xanax is a benzodiazepine drug that is similar to Klonopin and Valium. Benzodiazepines are similar to Ambien and also cause a depression, or slow, in brain activity. It’s so effective in slowing brain activity, in fact, that Xanax is sometimes used to help people to sleep, but Xanax is in a different medication class than Ambien. Xanax, like all other benzodiazepine medications, come with some very special abuse risks.
Benzodiazepines like Xanax work on receptors in the brain known as GABA receptors. Each molecule of Xanax has the potential to hop onto a GABA receptor, and when it does, it slows down the work that the GABA cells are designed to do.6
Typically, these GABA cells act a bit like the brain’s cleanup crew. They remove extra cells associated with brain pleasure and euphoria, so a person can get back to normal after exposure to some rewarding event. When that cleanup isn’t happening, the brain may feel numb or mildly euphoric for a short period of time. Feelings like that can be terribly addicting.
As people with these addictions develop a tolerance for the drugs they enjoy, they may be forced to do unusual things with the drugs they take. For Xanax abusers, that might involve crushing the pills and injecting them directly into the bloodstream. Xanax isn’t, however, designed to move through the bloodstream. Each Xanax pill contains inert ingredients like cornstarch that can bunch up and clog the little capillaries in the body. That blockage can cause cell death, which might manifest as ulcers.
That’s why it’s vital for people suffering from Xanax addiction to get help from a formal treatment program. People can then get the help they need to stop abusing Xanax for good.
“To deal with life, I started abusing my meds,” writes Laurie W. “I was prescribed Xanax and Ambien at the time and I used these excessively to deal with my anxiety and insomnia. I always would lose track of how much I took though, one pill would suddenly turn into 10… The way I remember describing my state of mind then was that I felt like “half a person.”
– Laurie of Heroes in Recovery
Phenobarbital and other barbiturate drugs are used in a variety of ways. Some people use the drug to help control or prevent seizures. Others use this medication to help calm anxiety. Ironically, others use this medication to help them ease addiction symptoms. These drugs are sedatives that slow down almost every single system in the body.
Barbiturates like phenobarbital are known to be habit-forming, and people who take this type of medication are often encouraged to follow directions carefully and avoid:
- Taking bigger doses than recommended
- Combining the drug with another drug, like alcohol
- Taking doses too close together
- Taking the drug in an unusual way (like snorting pills)7
This drug is also intoxicating to the tissues of the brain, and sometimes, people who take this drug become enamored with what it can do and how it can make them feel.
People who choose to crush phenobarbital pills and inject the powder may have the same abscesses and cell death seen in people who inject Xanax. That’s because phenobarbital pills also have the same inactive ingredients that just aren’t meant to hit the bloodstream directly.
People who abuse phenobarbital need to get help in order to stop, as the drug can cause uncomfortable side effects when removed on a cold-turkey basis. But those who do choose to get sober will find that they’re feeling better than they ever did while under the influence of this very powerful drug.
Duragesic and other Opioids
When people in pain need severe relief, they might be provided with the prescription drug Duragesic. This is a very powerful painkiller medication that comes in multiple forms, including those that can be:
- Placed on the skin
- Injected into tissues
- Absorbed through the gums
- Snorted through the nose
If used properly, this medication can provide a great deal of relief, but the active ingredient in Duragesic—the opioid fentanyl– can be quite dangerous.
Opioids work by latching to the brain’s pleasure receptors. When they’re latched on, opioids trigger a cascading series of chemical reactions that can be amazingly powerful, and the person going through those reactions often feels blissful or happy.
Unfortunately, fentanyl is highly associated with overdoses. The drug can slow vital systems down to such a degree that it’s hard to support life. Fentanyl is very powerful and leads to a large number of overdoses each year.
Opioids are not designed to be used in mild cases or for long periods of time. Where someone with cancer might be given Duragesic to help quell symptoms, someone with a toothache might be given something much less powerful, like Vicodin. It’s important to know that all opioid drugs are dangerous.
This prescription drug can be dangerous too, but it’s just not as overwhelmingly strong as its close cousin. Prescription painkillers like Vicodin, however, have plenty of their own dangers. Vicodin, for instance, contains hydrocodone, which is an opioid medication capable of boosting signals of pleasure that can quickly become addictive. In time, people with an addiction to Vicodin and other prescription opioids find that they need more and more of the drug in order to feel a high.
Each boost of dosage brings an increased risk of overdose and death. That active ingredient is responsible for a great deal of harm. Vicodin and many other opioid painkillers also have other ingredient that are worth monitoring. In Vicodin, the secondary ingredient is acetaminophen, which is designed to reduce pain. It’s processed by the liver, and when taken in small doses, it does little long-term harm. But when people are addicted and they take large doses of this drug, they can ingest huge amounts of acetaminophen, which can lead to liver failure and death. That’s why it’s vital for people who are dependent on opioids to get the help they’ll need in order to stop the abuse.
Working Through Treatment
Reading through a laundry list of possibilities can be a little overwhelming, but it’s important to remember that these side effects don’t have to occur in everyone who fills a bottle at a prescription counter. Patients who work closely with doctors, follow the instructions to the letter and do everything that’s required in order to get well often have a low risk of developing an addiction.
But, if you or someone you love has drifted from using drugs into abusing drugs, we’re here to help. At Black Bear Lodge, we have a suite of treatments we can use to help you both understand the nature of prescription drug abuse and build up skills you’ll need in order to stop abusing drugs. Just call us at 706-914-2327, and our admissions coordinators can outline the steps we can help you take.
1 Kaiser Family Foundation. Total Number of Retail Prescription Drugs Filled at Pharmacies. 2016. Web. Retrieved 20 Dec. 2017.
2 Berkrot, B. US prescription drug spending as high as $610 billion by 2021: Report. Reuters. 3 May 2017. Web. Retrieved 20 Dec. 2017.
3 Olsen, E. Ambien: Is dependence a concern? Mayo Clinic. 5 May 2017. Web. Retrieved 20 Dec. 2017.
4 Victorri-Vigneau, C., et al. Evidence of Zolpidem Abuse and Dependence: Results of the French Centre for Evaluation and Information on Pharmacodependence (CEIP) Network Survey. British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology 64.2 (2007): 198–209. PMC. Web. Retrieved 20 Dec. 2017.
5 Neel, A. What Are the Side Effects of Long-term Use of Xanax and Ambien? AARP. Web. Retrieved 20 Dec. 2017.
6 Longo L., Johnson B.Addiction: Part I. Benzodiazepines–side effects, abuse risk and alternatives. American Family Physician. Apr 2000. 1;61(7):2121-8. Web. Retrieved 20 Dec. 2017.
7 U.S. National Library of Medicine. Phenobarbital. Apr 2017. Web. Retrieved 20 Dec. 2017.