What is the role of medications in the treatment of insomnia?

Updated: Sep 11, 2018
  • Author: Jasvinder Chawla, MD, MBA; Chief Editor: Selim R Benbadis, MD  more...
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The pharmacologic treatment of insomnia has made great advances in the last 2 decades. In the early 19th century, alcohol and opioids were used as sleeping medications. In the late 19th century, chloral hydrate was used (and misused, in combination with alcohol, as “knockout drops” or a “Mickey Finn”). Barbiturates were used from the early 20th century until the early 1960s, when benzodiazepines (ie, flurazepam and quazepam) were first approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of insomnia.

In 2017, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) released an updated guideline for the pharmacologic treatment of chronic insomnia in adults. [6]

Benzodiazepines include long-acting forms (eg, flurazepam, quazepam), intermediate-acting forms (eg, temazepam, estazolam), and short-acting forms (triazolam). The long-acting agents are rarely used today for insomnia because of daytime sedation, cognitive impairment, and increased risk of falls in elderly patients.

Benzodiazepines were commonly used until the 1980s, when tolerance, dependence, and daytime side effects were recognized as major limitations of these agents, particularly those with long elimination half-lives. Temazepam is still used for a short-term course (ie, from days to 1-2 weeks), at a dose of 15-30 mg at bedtime.

In the 1990s, antidepressants were widely used for primary insomnia, and they continue to be widely used, despite the fact that few randomized, controlled trials have demonstrated their efficacy in treating primary insomnia. At present, sedative-hypnotics remain the most commonly prescribed sleep medications.

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