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Sedatives are a class of drugs primarily known for their ability to induce sleep. They can also promote a profound sense of relaxation when taken in lower doses. This category encompasses various substances, ranging from alcohol to nonbenzodiazepine hypnotics like Lunesta and Ambien. In this context, “sedative” refers to these nonbenzodiazepine hypnotics, which can lead to addiction when used too frequently or in excessive quantities.
The History and Prevalence of Sedative Addiction
Historically, bromides served as precursors to modern sedative medications. These substances, however, were discontinued due to the accumulation of toxic compounds in the body. Consequently, barbiturates became the preferred sedative in the early 20th century, despite their association with dependence, tolerance, and lethal overdoses.
Today, hypnotics are among the most frequently prescribed medications in the United States. While they are considered less dangerous than barbiturates and bromides, they are not without the risk of dependency.
Approximately 2.3% of the population engaged in non-medical use of sedatives in the past year, with about 10% of them meeting the criteria for abuse and dependence. Thus, sedative abuse is a prevalent issue in the United States that affects a wide range of demographics. Risk factors include older age, unmarried status, lack of education, criminal history, and being male or of Caucasian ethnicity. However, it’s essential to note that anyone can fall victim to sedative addiction.
Sedative addiction typically starts with a mental health diagnosis. An individual might be initially diagnosed with a sleep or mood disorder, leading to a prescription for sedatives. Over time, they may begin to abuse the medication by taking more than the prescribed amount or using it beyond their prescribed duration.
Outward Symptoms/Signs of Sedative Addiction
Sedative abuse may resemble alcoholism to an untrained observer. Similar to alcohol, sedatives produce intoxication within half an hour. They affect the areas of the brain related to the production and reception of the neurotransmitter GABA. This creates the hypnotic effect for which they are prescribed but also leads to other side effects.
Abuse of hypnotics results in various outward symptoms, such as:
- Impaired attention and focus.
- Inappropriate behavior.
- Unpredictable or unstable mood.
- Impaired judgment.
- Slowed reflexes.
- Difficulty walking and maintaining balance.
- Slurred speech.
- Impaired memory or blackouts.
Upon examination of this list, it becomes apparent that many of these side effects can be highly perilous. Sedative addicts experiencing blackouts may still be semi-functional, which can lead to self-harm or harm to others, particularly when driving or combining sedatives with other substances. Hospital reports indicate that most life-threatening issues arise when individuals mix sedatives with other drugs.
Typical Cost of Sedative Addiction
As sedative drugs are generally prescription medications, their cost can be challenging to determine. Those with prescriptions typically pay less than those buying the drugs illegally. When these drugs hit the streets, their price can significantly increase, depending on the criminal elements controlling the market. On average, street-purchased sedatives cost less than $5, making them considerably more affordable than many other illicit prescription medications.
Unlike other drugs, there is little connection between nonbenzodiazepine sedative addicts and criminal activities. However, this form of addiction can lead to significant personal problems. Sedative abusers may struggle with various aspects of their personal lives, including neglecting their family responsibilities, experiencing academic or work-related difficulties, or missing out on important life events due to their sedated state.
Effects of Sedative Addiction
The primary aim of sedatives, when used as prescribed, is to induce sleep rapidly. When abused or taken in excessive amounts, they can lead to various harmful side effects, in addition to drowsiness. High-dose use of hypnotics often results in a phenomenon known as a “blackout.” During these episodes, addicts maintain motor and speech functions but have no recollection of their actions. This can be dangerous, as individuals can engage in activities such as driving while under the influence or causing harm to themselves or others.
Over time, sedative addicts may experience severe psychological changes, including hallucinations and paranoia. These cases are risky, as hypnotics impair judgment, making addicts more likely to engage in irrational actions driven by paranoid or suicidal thoughts.
Long-term sedative use leads to tolerance, prompting users to take higher doses and leaving them susceptible to worsening side effects. Prolonged sedative use can result in issues like depression, chronic fatigue, breathing difficulties, sexual problems, and chronic insomnia. Addicts may also suffer from anxiety and panic attacks if they can’t access the required dose.
Permanence/Relapse of Sedative Addiction
Long-term sedative abuse can lead to addiction and issues that may become permanent or ongoing. Relapse rates among sedative abusers are estimated to be around 50% during the first five years of recovery. Furthermore, those seeking recovery from sedative abuse are at a significantly higher risk of suicide compared to those recovering from other addictions. Catching addiction early is essential, as the less time an addict has been using, the greater the likelihood of successful recovery.
Hypnotics directly affect the brain, causing it to become dependent on the drugs to regulate its natural rhythms. The disruption caused by abrupt abstinence can take a long time to repair, as the body has grown accustomed to sedation for sleep and other functions. When deprived of sedatives, addicts often suffer from depression and insomnia. This combination makes them more prone to relapse or suicidal thoughts.
For this reason, medical supervision is highly recommended.
Detox for Sedative Addiction
The withdrawal symptoms associated with sedative addiction can vary significantly based on the specific sedative used. For short-acting hypnotics, withdrawal symptoms may begin within 1-2 days and peak at approximately three days. In the case of long-acting hypnotics, the withdrawal process may be more extended, peaking after about seven days. Nevertheless, the withdrawal symptoms tend to be similar and include:
- Insomnia and restlessness.
- Postural hypotension.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Lack of coordination.
- Blurred vision.
Sedative withdrawal can have severe, even life-threatening side effects. For this reason, individuals should never attempt self-detox without medical care. In a professional setting, they are typically tapered off the abused drug or placed on a low-dose taper of benzodiazepines, which can mitigate most severe withdrawal symptoms. Medications to manage anxiety or sleeplessness may also be prescribed.
Physical and Mental Challenges of Recovery from Sedative Addiction
The primary challenge in overcoming sedative addiction is maintaining abstinence. Most individuals who have been abusing sedatives have easy access to the drugs they use, either through dealers or prescriptions. In almost all cases, recovering addicts need to make significant lifestyle adjustments to adapt to a substance-free life. This often involves changing social circles, avoiding old routines and environments, and establishing a support system with fellow individuals in recovery.
For many users, recovery without a structured environment is nearly impossible. Addiction treatment centers offer an ideal setting for long-term recovery.
Participation in therapeutic programs like cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical therapy, 12-step programs, or religious groups can be highly effective in preventing relapse.
Proven Help for Addiction or Alcoholism
Tallahassee Men’s Rehab, part of Teen Challenge, is here to help through faith-based residential programs and licensed counseling services. Tallahassee Men’s Rehab puts hope within reach of those who need it most. Men of all ages and backgrounds are finding freedom from addiction and other life-controlling issues, restoring relationships with their families, and creating new, hope-filled futures for themselves and their loved ones.