Sleeping Pills and Sleepwalking
Maha Alattar, MD, a sleep disorder specialist at the epilepsy and sleep disorders center of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says Ambien actually helps people with sleep disorders.
"I have put patients with sleepwalking and bizarre sleepwalking behaviors on Ambien, and it helped," Alattar tells WebMD. "It suppressed the arousal mechanisms that let these patients wake up to do these odd things. But any sleep medication can create bizarre effects."
Silber hasn't seen any of these bizarre behaviors in patients taking other brands of sleeping pills. That may be because Ambien is different, he says -- or it may simply be that so many more people take Ambien than any other sleep drug.
In any event, Silber says Ambien is still a very useful drug.
"We should not slam Ambien because it has some rare, unpleasant side effects," he says. "I still prescribe it for some of my patients."
The New York Times articles also linked Ambien to another disturbing side effect: sleep driving. In a recent report to a forensic science meeting, Laura J. Liddicoat reported a series of drivers arrested after driving under the influence of Ambien. Liddicoat is supervisor of the Toxicology Section at the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene.
Liddicoat objects to the term "sleep driving," as the people arrested in Wisconsin had misused or abused Ambien. All had taken Ambien before driving, not before going to bed.
"All of the cases that I have personal knowledge of involved people that were not in bed sleeping prior to driving, and took Ambien while intending to stay awake and be active," Liddicoat told WebMD in a recent interview. "Ambien has been in the 'Top 20' drugs -- other than ethanol -- detected in Wisconsin drivers for each of the last seven years."
Silber says he's never seen a case in which a patient took Ambien, went to bed, and was later found sleep driving.
WebMD asked Sanofi-Aventis, the maker of Ambien, to comment on the recent reports. The company replied by email.