How Do Sleeping Pills Really Work?

Study Says It's Partly Because You Think They Do

From the WebMD Archives

Dec. 20, 2012 -- The most widely prescribed sleeping pills do help people get to sleep, but maybe not only because of the medicine, a new study suggests.

When researchers combined studies of some of the newer prescription sleep drugs, they concluded that the drugs owe about half their benefits to a placebo effect.

But at least one sleep expert disagrees with that conclusion.

Benefits Small, Study Finds

The drugs included in the study were the sleep aids Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata and their generic versions.

The researchers conclude that these drugs improved people's ability to fall asleep compared to a placebo; however, the size of the effect was small.

They add that the risk of side effects and the potential for addiction need to be weighed when considering using these medications for treating insomnia.

Side effects of sleeping pills can include memory loss, daytime sleepiness, and increased risk of falls, and researchers say the drugs may be especially risky for older patients.

But a sleep specialist says the study does little to convince him that the drugs -- used by millions of people worldwide -- are less effective than studies suggest.

“The fact is that it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of sleep medications in studies. Patients take them and they either work or they don’t.”

“I don’t see how these researchers can come to the conclusion that 50% of the effect of these sleeping pills are due to the placebo effect,” says David Volpi, MD, of the sleep disorders division of Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.

Pagination