What is a Sedative Hypnotic Drug and How Does it Work?

Last Updated: February 23, 2021

A sedative provides relief by relaxing the muscles, making one feel sleepy, and alleviating feelings of stress and tension. Sleeping pills are a typical example of a sedative hypnotic. There are many types of sleep medications used across the country, whose purpose is to help people fall asleep if they cannot do so naturally for whatever reason. Over time, however, it is possible to become dependent on them. More and more of the hypnotic may be needed to get the desired results.

How Common are Hypnotic Drugs?

Hypnotic drugs are among the three most commonly used and abused types of medication, the others being opioids and stimulants. They are a type of central nervous system depressant in the same drug category as tranquilizers and are used to treat sleep disorders and anxiety. Some sedatives, such as Ambien, Halcion, Sonata, and Lunesta, can only be obtained with a prescription. Others are available over the counter. Increased incidences of prescription drug misuse since 2003 are reflected in increased emergency room visits and treatment for sedative hypnotic use disorder, the most severe type being sedative addiction. Almost 9 percent of those who report nonmedical use of sedatives meet the criteria for hypnotic use disorder.

Causes of Prescription Drug Addiction

The main reason for prescription drug addiction and more specifically sedative addiction is ease of access to these substances. More prescription drugs have been prescribed in the past two decades than ever before. What is more, many aren’t sufficiently aware that hypnotics can be highly addictive and labor under the false impression that they cannot be as harmful as illegal drugs. Many individuals face the risk of sedative abuse, but it is higher among certain populations, such as adolescents and young adults. According to a 2015 government study, 1.6 of youths aged 12 to 17 reported nonmedical use of prescription pills in the past month. 4.6 percent of young adults reported having taken prescription pills recreationally. More than half of those surveyed by NIDA said they either bought hypnotics from a pharmacy or got them from a friend or relative. A study by the American Academy of Pediatrics links medical use of prescription sedatives to a greater risk of potential drug misuse, particularly in teens who are exposed to these substances at home.

Are Sedatives Addictive? How Addictive?

Sedative-hypnotic drugs are very addictive. Hypnotics can very helpful if used for short periods and for a specific purpose. However, they can lead to dependence and addiction if taken at higher dosage, or more frequently, than prescribed. Use without a prescription is always considered drug abuse. When taken in small doses, the effect of sedatives can be similar to that of alcohol. Users will become relaxed, muscles will loosen up, and they may feel sleepy. When higher doses are taken, more severe effects may occur. Side effects of sedatives can include:

  • Staggering gait
  • Slurred speech
  • Aggressiveness or changes in personality
  • Irritability
  • Altered or slowed reflexes and mental function
  • Confusion (the most common sedative hypnotics side effect)
  • Poor judgement

These effects make it dangerous to operate a car or machinery under the influence of sedative-hypnotic drugs. Over time, users may need to take increased doses or other drugs to achieve the desired effect. This can lead to hypnotic dependence.

Hypnotic Abuse: Frequent Warning Signs

At first, it may be hard to tell if someone is abusing a hypnotic drug. Sedative hypnotic abuse or addiction signs may include slowed movement or response times, slight changes in behavior, or sleeping more often or for longer periods of time. As addiction progresses, additional changes may occur. These include slow reflexes, erratic behavior, cognitive dysfunction, poor performance at school and work, and a sudden, inexplicable need for money. People abusing sedatives may look like they’re drunk. Slurred speech, hampered reflexes and an unsteady gait are common. With time, users may need these drugs just to function normally in their day-to-day lives, although they may feel they are functioning well. They may begin to suffer from mental decline and family and other relationships may also suffer, especially as using and obtaining the hypnotics becomes a more important pastime in their day-to-day lives.
Because sedatives can be costly, users may begin asking for money. They may also resort to stealing money or valuables in order to afford their “fix.” Stealing the hypnotics themselves from other friends and family members with prescriptions may also occur.
As with most other drugs, withholding sedatives from an addict may lead to uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. These may include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Convulsions
  • Death

Infants born to mothers who are addicted to sedatives may be born with an addiction. Withdrawal symptoms will begin shortly after birth, and may include:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Fever
  • Irritability
  • Feeding issues
  • Fussiness
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Sweating
  • Birth defects and ongoing developmental delays can also occur.

Hypnotic Addiction: Highest-Risk Groups

Patients with chronic health conditions, for which ongoing treatment is required, are at a very high risk of sedative addiction since these people are more likely to be given higher or longer- term hypnotic doses. Once one starts taking sedatives, it can be hard to stop, especially if feelings of insomnia or anxiety were severe before they started taking the drug. However, anyone prescribed these medications can become addicted, especially when battling constant pain that keeps them from sleeping or when taking them in doses higher than recommended.
Other high-risk groups include teens and college students, as mentioned. Young people may take sedatives that were prescribed to an older family member. This is often due to convenience, since teens generally have less money than adults, and may go in search of whatever substance they can find. Those who have used other drugs in the past may be more likely to try sedatives. According to data of the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, over 138,000 teens and young adults were treated at a rehab facility that year for prescription drug abuse, including sedative abuse. Over 3 million people over the age of 12 are introduced to drugs every year, which corresponds to over 8,000 new drug users per day. Of these, 57 percent are underage. The drug use rate in young adults ages 18 to 25 is twice as high, making early treatment even more necessary.

Perceiving Problematic Use of Hypnotics

Sedative Hypnotics AddictionWhen does a teen need help? To answer this question, one has to be sure that a young person is abusing or addicted to hypnotics. Some parents who are taking sedatives themselves don’t realize there could a problem or might not notice that some of their pills are missing. Another disconcerting factor in this respect is that teens and young adults face a higher risk of becoming addicted to hypnotics and drugs in general than adults because their brains aren’t fully formed. Substance abuse often begins with trying drugs that are readily available around the house. It can be prevented before transforming into full-fledged addiction. Sedative abuse at a young age has a negative social and economic impact, leads to deterioration of school or work performance, and raises many medical and mental health concerns. What is more, it can exacerbate underlying mental conditions.
Professionals: Having a stressful career may lead to anxiety, and in turn, insomnia. Sleeping pills are often prescribed to help.
Veterans: Those who have been through deployments are more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. This is one reason why veterans or people suffering from a mental illness are more likely to get addicted to hypnotics.
Those who have a family history of drug abuse are more likely to become drug addicts. Studies show that there seems to be a genetic component when it comes to addiction.
Sedatives are often taken recreationally alongside other drugs, such as cocaine, marijuana, or alcohol. This intensifies some of the effects, and makes dangerous side effects and overdose more likely. It also increases the probability for addiction to drugs in general.

Treatment for Sedative Dependence

Sometimes it is hard for a user to recognize and acknowledge an addiction to sedatives, especially if the drugs were originally prescribed by a doctor. This gives them a mental “out” to excuse their behavior, because they have or had permission to take the drug from the start. As with all drug addictions, realizing and admitting the problem is the first step. Discussing the drug addiction with friends and family members is another good way to start. By acknowledging a need for outside help, the user can get moral support from loved ones for the journey ahead. A drug addiction treatment professional should be contacted to discuss treatment options. There are numerous avenues available for drug addictions, some of which can be more or less suitable depending on the situation. One option is a support group. These are groups of drug users or addicts who want moral support and ongoing encouragement to get clean. This gives them the chance to talk to others who understand their struggles and to hold one another accountable.
Outpatient therapy
Outpatient therapy is another means of support. This involves working with a trained therapist or counselor to discuss sobriety and potential pitfalls and to help uncover the feelings that may have led to sedative abuse in the first place. An outpatient rehab program will offer drug addiction treatment sessions that can take place on various days of the week. This flexible schedule makes it possible for patients to continue with their everyday lives and keep going to work or school. They are required to check into treatment as scheduled to receive medication and counseling. Outpatient centers come in a variety of forms with different degrees of intensity. They offer an array of services with the main focus being on education, counseling, and offering a support network. These treatment facilities are a great option for those firmly committed to bring their use of sedatives under control or stop using them outright. Another advantage of these programs is that they can be tailor-made to fit in with a client’s schedule. This is particularly important for those with demanding, stressful jobs, who are at a high risk of sedative addiction.

Inpatient therapy

Inpatient therapy is the most intensive treatment option, and often the most effective for those with severe addictions. This involves staying in a facility, in which patients are closely monitored. Counseling and support groups are also usually available, but within a safe space that doesn’t allow for relapses and other setbacks. Also known as residential rehab, this type of treatment can be a very good choice for a younger person struggling with hypnotic addiction. Treatment for a sedative addiction begins with detox, which is when the sedative leaves the system. As withdrawal symptoms can be difficult to deal with – they can even include convulsions and seizures – detox is carried out in a drug rehab facility or hospital so medical professionals can monitor the withdrawal symptoms and, if necessary, treat them. It can mean the different between life and death.
Sedative withdrawal symptoms usually start 12 to 24 hours after the substance is last taken and are most severe between 24 and 72 hours after the last dose. Then, they begin to fade. It may take over a week for intense withdrawal systems of longer-acting drugs to fade away. The purpose of sedative addiction treatment is to get one through detox safely so a plan for treatment can be set up to promote long-term rehabilitation and full recovery from sedative addiction. Sedative addiction rehab comes after detox. This is when the psychological addiction to the hypnotic is treated.

Treating Comorbid Conditions

As hypnotic abuse is often associated with certain mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression, these conditions must also be addressed to ensure lifelong recovery from the addiction. A rehab center will customize the treatment plan according to the individual’s needs, and usually include group therapy and individual counseling as well as cognitive behavioral therapies to help the person learn positive behaviors to replace the negative behaviors.
Rehab for sedative addiction can last anywhere from one to several months, after which the addict begins to recover. Therapy and counseling focus on developing approaches to cope with issues in one’s life without going back to sedatives. Some recovering addicts opt for a 12-step program, which is continued after rehabilitation treatment, as it can offer an invaluable support network to help them stay drug-free.

Page Sources

  1. https://www.drugabuse.gov/

Published on: October 1st, 2015

Updated on: February 23rd, 2021

About Author

Peter J. Grinspoon, MD

Dr. Peter Grinspoon is an experienced physician with long-term clinical practice experience. As a former analgesic addict, Dr. Grinspoon knows precisely how important it is to provide patients with effective treatment and support. Medical writing for him is the way to communicate with people and inform them about their health.


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  • Shaggertt A.
    This really helped me to get over my addiction and stop beating my meat so often