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Sleep drug dream for most, but a nightmare for others

May 21, 2006 |

As the media continues to report instances of patients sleepwalking, sleepeating and even sleepdriving while taking the prescription insomnia drug Ambien, online message boards continue to fill up with postings from patients who have had both good and bad experiences using the medication.

"It's 'good' to hear that others have had this sleepwalking response to Ambien. I don't remember doing anything, but I found the freezer emptied on the counter one morning, and, on another, my daughter woke to pizza burning in the oven. But the night she caught me moving furniture was the end. I just thought, 'What if I decided to drive?' and (I) haven't used it since," wrote a woman named Sidney last month on

A few days later, a woman named Karen shared how much she has been helped by the drug.

"I have been taking Ambien for seven years and have had only MINOR side affects. This drug has given me my life back. I'm a chronic insomniac and went on four hours of sleep a night for years until I was properly medicated with Ambien. I feel GREAT now!!!!!"

In March though, a federal class action lawsuit was filed in New York on behalf of any patient who has taken the medication and experienced sleepwalking, sleepeating and/or memory loss.

Top seller

According to medical experts, Ambien is the most popular insomnia drug used by patients in search of a good night's rest.

"This is the most commonly prescribed hypnotic or sleeping aid in the United States," said Dr. Timothy McGee, medical director of the Edward Sleep Center and diplomat of the American Board of Sleep Medicine.

Ambien and zolpiderm, its active ingredient, have been used by millions of people in the U.S. and has provided 14 billion nights of patient therapy worldwide, said Emmy Tsui, spokeswoman in the company's New York office.

"It's one of our fastest-moving drugs and it's definitely within the top-200 drugs most used you could probably almost say that nationwide," said Karen Davis, pharmacist at Oswald's Pharmacy in Naperville. A one-month supply of the medication costs about $125 if a person were to pay cash, she said, and soon the generic form of the drug will be made available to patients.

The side effects

While behavior that ranges from simply bizarre to outright dangerous has been highlighted in print and broadcast media, local experts say they have not encountered anything as extreme as the examples in the news.

"I've heard of a couple of cases, but it's not a common complaint at all," McGee said. "I personally have not had any patients that have come back with bizarre stories."

He has had some primary care physicians call him to ask about their patients behavior while on the medication though, he said.

"These side effects are not common, but they are recognized," McGee said. "They've been recognized for a long time."

In response to reports of side effects, though, Sanofi-Aventis posted a statement on its Web site regarding the appropriate use of the medication:

"Recent anecdotal reports in the media have focused on rare occurrences of sleepwalking and sleep-related eating in patients who may also be taking Ambien. The safety profile of Ambien is well established and reported in the Ambien Prescribing Information approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration," the company said.

Medical experts stress that patients should follow the instructions given with the medication, including taking it just before bedtime.

"You have to be going to bed because it has a relatively quick onset of action and relatively short duration of action," McGee said. "It can hit you within 20 minutes."

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