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Amobarbital Abuse: Symptoms & Treatment Options

Amobarbital, commonly called Amytal (a brand name version of the drug) or sodium amytal, is a barbiturate prescribed to treat seizures, anxiety, and sleep disorders.

Barbiturates were once the first line of defense in treating serious anxiety and sleep disorders. They have become far less popular in the past two decades as safer options, like benzodiazepines, have increased in popularity.

However, amobarbital and other barbiturates are still prescribed, particularly for epilepsy and convulsion disorders, and they are still used in medical settings as well.

Amobarbital and other barbiturates are thought to be used on the street market as well, although there has not been much recent research to conclude how many people are obtaining these drugs on the street or online.

Even though their popularity is in decline, barbiturates like amobarbital remain a danger because of their high risk of potential abuse, dependency, overdose, and extreme withdrawal symptoms.

How Does Amobarbital Work?

Amobarbital is a barbiturate that can act as a sedative-hypnotic or anticonvulsant drug, depending on its dosage.

Barbiturates act as a depressant on the central nervous system (CNS) and affect the central nervous system in several ways. The result is a calming or relaxing effect that can, depending on the dosing, be so intense that it acts as a sedative or anesthetic. In high doses, amobarbital can decrease one’s heart rate and blood pressure to the point of inducing coma or death.

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Unlike opioids or many other CNS depressants, sedative-hypnotics like amobarbital can “calm” the central nervous system without affecting mood or acting as a pain reliever. This is one reason these drugs have been popular for those seeking sedatives without pain-relieving effects, such as those looking for treatment for a sleeping disorder or epilepsy.

Is Amobarbital Addictive?

Like all barbiturates, amobarbital is highly addictive and habit-forming.

Users are likely to develop a tolerance to the drug that will cause them to crave stronger doses to achieve the effects they’ve grown accustomed to. Physical dependence quickly forms.

Who Uses Amobarbital?

Once widely prescribed for sleep problems and anxiety, barbiturates like amobarbital are now only prescribed in the U.S. for epilepsy. Their use for this purpose is even declining; however, as doctors are choosing safer alternatives to treat epilepsy and other seizure disorders.

Because of their relatively low cost and effectiveness, barbiturates are popular in developing countries and areas outside the U.S.

On the illicit street market, barbiturates like amobarbital have become less popular, perhaps because they are less accessible because of their lower prescription rates.

Because of its severe side effects and high risk of dependence and overdose, any use of amobarbital beyond what is prescribed by a doctor or administered in a medical setting, including recreational use and taking higher doses of the medication than prescribed, is considered abuse of the drug and extremely dangerous. 

Symptoms of Amobarbital Use

Amobarbital is a very strong medication. Users will exhibit side effects that may include:

  • Increased sense of relaxation
  • Loss of inhibition
  • Slurred or confused speech
  • Poor judgment
  • Euphoria
  • Confusion
  • Poor muscle coordination
  • Lethargy
  • Depression
  • Constipation

More serious side effects may indicate an overdose or adverse reaction to the drug, which can lead to coma or death. An individual with any of the following serious side effects should seek emergency medical attention immediately:

  • Slowed or problematic breathing
  • Vomiting
  • Severe headache
  • Swelling, particularly of the mouth, lips, or face
  • Extreme confusion
  • Visual hallucinations

Short-Term Dangers

Barbiturates like amobarbital have been largely phased out of modern-day medicine because of the extreme dangers they present to users. Short-term dangers include:

  • Addiction and dependence. Like all barbiturates, amobarbital is highly habit-forming. Users become both physically and psychologically addicted to the drug and begin to crave it when they’re not using it. Users also develop a tolerance to amobarbital and will begin to need higher doses to achieve the desired effect
  • Overdose. The difference between a standard dose of amobarbital and a dose that will cause a dangerous or fatal overdose is very small, which makes the risk of overdose very high. The fact that users develop a tolerance and may begin taking a higher dose to increase their effects further amplifies the risk of overdose. Unlike many other drugs today, like opioids, there is no antidote available for a barbiturate overdose
  • Potential for interaction with other drugs. It is dangerous to mix amobarbital with many other drugs and substances, including alcohol and sleeping pills
  • Suicidal thoughts. Amobarbital’s depressant effect on the central nervous system may increase the likelihood of suicidal thoughts, especially in users with a history of depression or mental illness
  • Severe withdrawal. Users should never abruptly stop their use of amobarbital, as this can result in dangerous and even fatal side effects and sickness.

Long-Term Dangers

Long-term dangers of consistent amobarbital use include:

  • Sleep problems. Once commonly prescribed as a sleep medication, it is now understood that barbiturates like amobarbital can result in lower quality and disrupted sleep
  • Sleep apnea. Because amobarbital can slow down breathing and make the upper airways more collapsible, there is a greater risk of sleep apnea. When combined with the drug’s sedative effects on consciousness, this can create the risk of suffocation, asphyxiation, and even death.
  • Breathing problems and pneumonia. The effects of amobarbital on the body’s organs can create long-term breathing problems and result in illnesses like pneumonia. 

Withdrawal

As discussed, barbiturate withdrawal is extremely difficult, uncomfortable, and dangerous.

During withdrawal, users are at risk of having convulsions, seizures, and fever and heart problems that can lead to fatal illness. Withdrawal from amobarbital should never be attempted cold turkey. It should always be supervised by a medical professional.

Most individuals begin to exhibit more mild withdrawal symptoms within eight to 12 hours of taking their last dose. These symptoms may include anxiety, twitching, muscle weakness, dizziness, insomnia, and tremors of the hands.

The most severe and dangerous withdrawal symptoms, including convulsions and delirium, may occur within 16 hours of abruptly stopping the medication. They can last up to five days.

Withdrawal symptoms generally fade over a 15-day period.

Treatment for Amobarbital Withdrawal

Because of the severity of amobarbital withdrawal symptoms and the extreme danger users are in throughout the withdrawal process, a residential detox center is often the best choice for withdrawal. Clients can be monitored throughout the entire process and made to feel as comfortable as possible.

Medical professionals can strategize a withdrawal plan that will include a very gradual lessening of amobarbital dosing. This helps to lessen the severity of withdrawal symptoms and reduce the likelihood of experiencing seizures.

Other medications may be used to address other symptoms of withdrawal, such as insomnia or depression.

Recovery from Amobarbital Abuse

Because amobarbital is such an acute drug that creates strong dependence in its users, the road to recovery for those dependent on it can be challenging.

For this reason, inpatient addiction treatment may be the best option. In a treatment center, newly detoxed individuals don’t have to immediately worry about daily stresses and reentry into their lives and society. They can focus solely on recovery.

Therapy will be a key part of recovery. During therapy sessions, clients will identify their previous motivations to abuse drugs. They’ll address underlying issues and learn to deal with stress without turning to substance abuse.

The best recovery centers will help clients develop better life skills and judgment as well as coping skills to help them thrive in the real world without falling back into bad habits.

Conclusion

Today, amobarbital and other barbiturates have been mostly replaced by safer and milder prescription drugs, especially to treat conditions like insomnia and anxiety. Still, amobarbital is used in medical settings and sometimes prescribed for epilepsy. It is sometimes, though not frequently, used recreationally as well.

Because the risk of dependency and overdose is so high with barbiturates, anyone using amobarbital should be extremely aware of its high potential for abuse.

If you have become dependent on amobarbital, consult immediately with a doctor to develop a safe withdrawal plan. Withdrawal can be extremely dangerous and should never be attempted abruptly or without medical supervision.

Comprehensive substance abuse treatment is then needed to gain a firm footing in recovery.

Sources

(May 2018) Uses and Effects of Barbiturates. Kendra Cherry. Verywell Mind. from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-are-barbiturates-2794873

(August 2017) Amytal Sodium. Valeant Pharmaceuticals North America LLC. National Institutes of Health. from https://dailymed.nlm.nih.gov/dailymed/fda/fdaDrugXsl.cfm?setid=a2523317-e071-4e04-9d9f-9053286e0ce2&type=display

(April 2016) Sedative-Hypnotic Drug. Encyclopedia Britannica. from https://www.britannica.com/science/sedative-hypnotic-drug

(1956) Sodium Amytal and Behavior in Neurotic Subjects. S.G. Laverty and C.M. Franks. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry. National Institutes of Health. from https://jnnp.bmj.com/content/jnnp/19/2/137.full.pdf

Amobarbital sodium – Drug Summary. Prescriber’s Digital Reference (PDR). from https://www.pdr.net/drug-summary/Amytal-Sodium-amobarbital-sodium-24082

(June 2018) Everything You Need to Know about Barbiturates. Kathleen Davis FNP. Medical News Today. from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/310066.php

(November 2018) Prescription Medications and the Risk of Sleep Apnea. Brandon Peters, MD. Verywell Health. from https://www.verywellhealth.com/how-medications-may-affect-sleep-apnea-3014683

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