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An Overview of Sleep Medications

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In this issue of the journal, Dr. Terpening—a clinical pharmacy clinician/educator at West Virginia University and provider of pharmaceutical care to ambulatory and hospitalized Family Medicine patients—offers the reader insight into the clinical use of various medications used to manage insomnia. Since insomnia can be associated with acute and chronic states, its effective management can improve a patient’s well being and quality of life.

Charles D. Ponte, PharmD, CDE, BCPS, FASHP, FCCP, FAPhA

Insomnia is an extremely prevalent disorder affecting up to a third of the adult population in the United States.1-3 While numerous definitions exist, the DSM-IV defines insomnia as the presence of either difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep or nonrestorative sleep.4 Also accompanying this disruption in sleep is clinically significant distress or impairment of functioning. Insomnia can be either acute or chronic. It can also be classified as primary, or secondary to a wide variety of psychological or medical conditions.

Insomnia is frequently comorbid with pain. Patients with chronic painful conditions are more likely than the general population to experience insomnia.5,6 The relationship is also reciprocal with patients having insomnia reporting higher pain scores than patients without insomnia.6 Treatment of insomnia in the presence of pain is thus multifactorial. Both must be treated simultaneously for optimal outcomes. Unfortunately, just as in the treatment of pain, there are numerous treatment options for insomnia but no universal best choice. Choices must be tailored to the individual patient. This paper will review the pharmacologic options for treatment of insomnia. This is not to imply that nonpharmacologic methods are ineffective. Frequently, behavioral modification strategies are the optimal choice in the chronic pain patient, due to the presence of drug interactions and the development of tolerance with many pharmacologic choices. However, they do require motivated patients and their effects may not be observed for several nights.

There are a number of pharmacologic agents available to treat insomnia. Among drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for insomnia are the benzodiazepines (e.g. temazepam, triazolam), the non-benzodiazepine GABA agonists (e.g. zolpidem, zaleplon), and the melatonin agonist, ramelteon (see Table 1). Several antidepressants have been used off-label for their hypnotic properties (e.g. amitriptyline, trazodone, mirtazapine; see Table 2). Finally, over-the counter options include the antihistamines diphenhydramine and doxylamine (see Table 3). While anticonvulsants and atypical antipsychotics are occasionally used for insomnia, this is not commonplace, is not supported in the literature, and will not be discussed.


Essentially all benzodiazepines share hypnotic properties, and can be used as sleep aids. However, only flurazepam (Dalmane®), estazolam (Prosom®), quazepam (Doral®), temazepam (Restoril®), and triazolam (Halcion®) are formally indicated for treatment of insomnia. All of these agents are available generically. The primary distinction among the benzodiazepines is their half-life. Short half-life agents, such as triazolam, have a rapid onset of effect and little hangover sedation the next day. However, they may not provide sleep throughout the night. Conversely, long half-life agents (flurazepam, estazolam, quazepam) increase sleep maintenance, but may take some time to induce sleep and have a high incidence of adverse cognitive effects the next day. Overall, total sleep duration appears to increase with the use of benzodiazepines.7,8

Benzodiazepines are controlled substances, specifically C-IV. Thus, they do possess the potential for dependence and addiction. However, they are less problematic than older sleep aids such as barbiturates. Nonetheless, they should be used with great caution in patients with a history of substance abuse, including alcohol abuse. Development of tolerance to the benzodiazepines— when used as directed for sleep—is controversial. While it has been reported, there are no long term trials that would clarify the incidence.7 Regardless of duration of use, rebound insomnia on discontinuation has been reported, with greater effects at greater doses. Withdrawal symptoms have also been noted on discontinuation. Tapering is recommended, especially in patients receiving high doses and/or long duration of therapy.

Table 1. Available Sleep Medications
Drug Brand Name
Temazepam Restoril®
Triazolam Halcion®
Flurazepam Dalmane®
Estazolam Prosom®
Quazepam Doral®
Drug Brand Name
Zoldipem Ambien®
Zaleplon Sonata®
Eszopiclone Lunesta®

Benzodiazepines have demonstrated efficacy in patients with chronic pain.9 Measures of both sleep and pain improved in rheumatoid arthritis patients when treated with triazolam. However, caution must be exercised when used alongside certain other pain medications. In particular, concurrent use of opiates and benzodiazepines can potentiate not only sedation, but also respiratory depression. Respiratory depression with benzodiazepines may also be problematic in patients with obstructive sleep apnea.

Non-benzodiazepine GABA agonists

Compared to the benzodiazepines, the non-benzodiazepines have a similar affinity to the a1 subunit of the GABAA receptor, but much lower affinities for the other a subunits. Thus, they retain similar hypnotic effects, but lack the muscle relaxant and anticonvulsant properties of the benzodiazepines. Unfortunately, they also appear to retain similar potential for abuse and dependence.10 All carry a C-IV designation. Like the benzodiazepines, they can be lethal in overdose, but that is very rare unless used in conjunction with ethanol. The agents having FDA approval are zolpidem (Ambien®, Ambien CR®), zaleplon (Sonata®), and eszopiclone (Lunesta®). A fourth agent, indiplon, is under consideration by the FDA. As a group, these are the most prescribed sleep aids in the United States.

Zolpidem, in its immediate release form is the only non-benzodiazepine hypnotic available generically. With its relatively short half-life (~2.5 hours), it has clearly demonstrated efficacy in reducing sleep latency. It is less clear whether the immediate release form affects sleep maintenance. Short term studies are generally positive, but longer duration trials have often found a waning of effect on sleep maintenance. The extended release form is effective for sleep maintenance, but may have a higher incidence of somnolence the next day. Studies of long-term dosing of extended release zolpidem have not been published. Both forms have the potential for rebound insomnia.

Last updated on: January 6, 2012
First published on: October 1, 2006