Visits to the emergency department linked with the sleeping pill zolpidem, commonly known by the brand name Ambien, have increased by nearly 220 percent over a five-year period, according to a new report.
The report, from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, shows that there were 19,487 zolpidem-related visits to the emergency department across the U.S. in 2010, up from 6,111 in 2005.
"Although short-term sleeping medications can help patients, it is exceedingly important that they be carefully used and monitored," Pamela S. Hyde, SAMHSA Administrator, said in a statement. "Physicians and patients need to be aware of the potential adverse reactions associated with any medication, and work closely together to prevent or quickly address any problems that may arise."
Zolpidem-linked emergency department visits increased by 274 percent for women between 2005 and 2010, and 144 percent for men. Half of the visits in 2010 were caused by taking zolpidem in addition to another kind of drug, with 37 percent of the visits involving taking zolpidem in addition to a central nervous system-depressing drug.
SAMHSA reported that taking zolpidem with other drugs can be dangerous because it makes the sedative effects of the pill even more powerful.
Zolpidem is FDA-approved to treat (not cure!) insomnia, but side effects include parasomnias (like sleepwalking), daytime drowsiness, hallucinations and dizziness. Earlier this year, the FDA recommended drugmakers to lower dosages of zolpidem because of the morning drowsiness effects of the drug.
"All sleep drugs have the potential to cause this, so health professionals should prescribe – and patients should take – the lowest dose that is capable of preventing insomnia," Dr. Ellis Unger, a director in FDA's Office of Drug Evaluation, said in a teleconference as reported by the Associated Press.
Last year, a study in the journal BMJ Open showed an association between taking 18 or fewer sleeping pills a year -- particularly zolpidem in the drug temazepam (Restoril) -- and having a 3.5 times higher death risk. However, it was not clear what was responsible for this association -- if it's that the sleeping pills themselves are dangerous, that people who have insomnia to begin with have a higher death risk, or that these people may have been taking other drugs or had other conditions that would raise their death risk.
HuffPost Science's Cara Santa Maria explained how zolpidem works in the brain:
It works on a receptor of the brain that binds GABA (short for gamma-aminobutyric acid), the main inhibitory neurotransmitter in humans. GABA quiets the nervous system, and drugs that mimic or potentiate GABA are prescribed for anxiety, as anticonvulsants, and to help people sleep, like Ambien does.
For more on zolpidem and other sleeping pills, click here.