What are Tranquilizers?

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The term "tranquilizer" is used to encompass a wide variety of drugs that depress the central nervous system and have a calming effect. Most tranquilizers are prescription drugs, however, some can be purchased over-the-counter (OTC). They are used in the treatment of psychotic disorders, anxiety disorders, sleep disorders, and occasionally seizures or high blood pressure.

Common effects of tranquilizers include:

  • Relaxation
  • Sedation 
  • Induced drowsiness or sleep
  • Prevents or stops seizures
  • Relaxes muscles

Major Tranquilizers vs Minor Tranquilizers

Major tranquilizers, also known as antipsychotic agents or neuroleptics, treat major mental disturbances in patients with schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders. Minor tranquilizers, also called antianxiety agents or anxiolytics, treat minor states of tension and anxiety in healthy individuals or patients with less severe mental disorders.

The terms "major tranquilizer" and "minor tranquilizer" are being used less and less. The terms "neuroleptic" and "anxiolytic" are more specific and are becoming favored in medical communities.

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Prescription Sedatives & Tranquilizers

Benzodiazepines increase the work of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). This helps reduce certain nerve-impulse transmissions. The result is reduced anxiety and a calming effect.

Benzodiazepines, or "benzos," are one of the most commonly abused prescription tranquilizers. Because of their widespread abuse and misuse, doctors only prescribe these types of tranquilizers to people with specific health problems, such as seizures. 

Benzos can cause health problems over-time, such as shallow breathing, paranoia, aggressive behavior, and other mental health problems. 

Commonly prescribed “benzos” include: 

  • Alprazolam (Xanax)
  • Diazepam (Valium)
  • Oxazepam (Serax, Zaxopam)
  • Clonazepam (Klonopin or Rivotril)
  • Temazepam (Restoril)
  • Lorazepam (Ativan)
  • Chlordiazepoxide (Librium)
  • Flurazepam (Dalmane)

People abuse opioids for pain relief and to feel their tranquilizing effects. However, narcotic drugs (which include opioids) are one of the leading causes of accidental, deadly overdoses. When opioids are mixed with benzos, this risk increases even more. If someone has built up a tolerance to a narcotic, they need to take a higher dose to feel the same effects. 

Many people die from accidental overdoses because they overestimate the dose they need after their tolerance level has gone down.

Commonly abused narcotic pain pills include:

  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin, Norco)
  • Oxycodone (OxyContin, Roxicodone, Percocet)
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
  • Morphine (MS Contin)
  • Fentanyl (Duragesic) 

Barbiturates are sleep-inducing sedative drugs derived from barbituric acid. Commonly abused barbiturates include:

  • Phenobarbital (Luminal)
  • Secobarbital (Seconal)
  • Amobarbital (Amynal)
  • Pentobarbital (Nembutal)

Hypnotic” medications (sleeping pills) are usually prescribed to people with insomnia. These medications act on the brain differently than the other tranquilizing drugs listed above. 

Examples of sleep medications include:

  • Zolpidem (Ambien)
  • Triazolam (Halcion)
  • Eszopiclone (Lunesta)
  • Zaleplon (Sonata)

Not long after the popular drug Ambien was released, people began reporting sleepwalking cases on a widespread basis.

Other Types of Tranquilizers

Pairing alcoholic beverages with any sedating drug is a potentially dangerous mixture, and should always be avoided.

By far, the most commonly abused sedating substance is alcohol (CNS depressant). When mixed with tranquilizer pills or inhaled or injected drugs, an increased level of sedation can occur, which kills many people every year.

Heroin is usually snorted or taken intravenously. Heroin is often mixed with another drug to “cut” the more expensive raw drug into cheaper portions. Common drugs combined with heroin include the highly sedating pharmaceutical drug fentanyl, an extremely potent narcotic often used to treat cancer-related pain.

Ketamine is a sedative normally used for moderate sedation in the hospital setting. Health professionals generally administer it as an intramuscular injection.

Although marijuana is now legal in many states in the US, it can cause a dangerous state of sedation when mixed with other substances. Edibles, or snacks made with high doses of potent strains of THC (the active narcotic in marijuana), can be easily dosed incorrectly.

Over-the-Counter Drugs

A few potentially sedating over-the-counter (OTC) drugs are intended for insomnia, cold treatment, and other minor health issues. 

Two common OTC sedating medicines include: 

  • Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) 
  • Dimenhydrinate (Dramamine)

These OTC drugs can both produce a significant sedating effect. Generally, they should not be combined with other tranquilizing medicines to prevent potential health and safety issues.

Kratom is an increasingly popular over-the-counter narcotic substitute that mimics the effects of opioids. In some states, such as Indiana, the use of Kratom is illegal.

Kratom is currently under inspection by the FDA for its significant tranquilizing properties.

Side Effects of Tranquilizers

Benzodiazepines can produce potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms when abused. Benzo withdrawal can cause seizures, panic attacks, insomnia, and muscle pain. Short acting Benzodiazepines, such as Xanax, have the most significant withdrawal symptoms.

Opioids have a long list of unwanted side effects aside from respiratory depression, including constipation, which can cause the bowels to slow or stop normal digestion.

Other adverse side effects of tranquilizers include:

  • Pruritic itching
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Nausea
  • Lowered appetite
  • Seizures related to withdrawal
  • Lowered cognition
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Irregular heart-rate

Risks of Prescription Tranquilizers

Taken alone, benzodiazepines pose a much lower risk of fatal overdose than when combined with opioids, even when misused. Because many opioid medications are combined with Acetaminophen (Tylenol, APAP), risk of serious liver damage and organ failure from overdose is an additional concern.

A 2016 study released by the CDC that studied 1.3 million opioid users between 2006 and 2015 indicated that opioid dependency began in less than a week of initial use. Any opioid drug abuse increases your chances of addiction.

Hypnotic class drugs, while effective for many who suffer from insomnia, can cause dangerous memory lapses. There have been cases of patients taking a normal dose of Ambien doing things like driving, shopping by phone or online, or preparing and eating full meals.

Signs and Symptoms of a Tranquilizer Addiction

The clinical symptoms of physical dependency on tranquilizers include: 

  • Lowered inhibition
  • Unusual happiness or euphoria
  • Significant weight loss or gain (noticeable change in appearance)
  • Bruises, swelling, and minor injuries related to falling while sedated
  • Needle marks, bruising, and/or swelling caused by needle use
  • History of “doctor shopping” to fuel their habit (having multiple pill bottles with different prescribing doctors names in their possession)

Withdrawal Symptoms

Opioids have withdrawal symptoms that are well documented and well known, including:

  • Heavy sweating
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Hot flashes
  • Chills
  • Musculoskeletal pain
  • Muscle spasms
  • Seizures

Benzodiazepine withdrawal is often associated with anxiety attacks, hand tremors, inability to concentrate, sweatiness, nausea, insomnia, seizure, and even psychosis.

It is not generally a good idea to quit “cold turkey”, or stop using the drug abruptly. Life-threatening problems, such as seizures, breathing disturbances, and heart arrhythmias, could occur during the acute phase of withdrawal.

Treatment Options

Tranquilizers can lead to addiction over time, especially in long-term abuse cases. It is crucial to contact a medical practitioner or go to an emergency room to get immediate help during the withdrawal phase of the recovery process.

There are many addiction treatment options available to those who can afford it through insurance. If you cannot afford inpatient treatment, you may want to consider outpatient treatment. Both programs provide hands-on guidance and support while you work toward sobriety.

There are also self-help programs that charitable organizations provide to nearly everyone. These programs include anonymous meetings, churches, and other support groups. Twelve-step programs, for example, are low-cost and available in most communities in the United States. 

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Resources +

National Institute on Drug Abuse, et al. “Benzodiazepines and Opioids.” NIDA, 15 Mar. 2018, www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/opioids/benzodiazepines-opioids.

Oyefeso, Adenekan, et al. “Prevalence and Pattern of Benzodiazepine Abuse and Dependence Among Patients in a Methadone Detoxification Programme: A Repeated Cross-Sectional Analysis (Benzodiazepine Abuse Among Opiate Addicts).” Addiction Research, vol. 4, no. 1, 1996, pp. 57–64., doi:10.3109/16066359609005563, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3109/16066359609005563.

Bonner, Loren. “Pain Patients on Trajectory for Long-Term Opioid Use after Just 5 Days, CDC Finds.” Pharmacy Today, vol. 23, no. 6, 2017, p. 31., doi:10.1016/j.ptdy.2017.05.019, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK458661/.

Karch, Steven B. “Diphenhydramine Toxicity: Comparisons of Postmortem Findings in Diphenhydramine-, Cocaine-, and Heroin-Related Deaths.” The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, vol. 19, no. 2, 1998, pp. 143–147., doi:10.1097/00000433-199806000-00008, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9662109/.

Muhuri PK, Gfroerer JC, Davies MC. “Associations of Nonmedical Pain Reliever Use and Initiation of Heroin Use in the United States.” Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; 2013.https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/DR006/DR006/nonmedical-pain-reliever-use-2013.htm.

Poceta, J Steven. “Zolpidem Ingestion, Automatisms, and Sleep Driving: a Clinical and Legal Case Series.” Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine : JCSM : Official Publication of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 15 Dec. 2011, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3227709/.

“Kratom- A Lethal Drug On The Rise.” Journal of Addiction and Prevention, vol. 7, no. 1, 2019, pp. 01–06., doi:10.13188/2330-2178.1000046, https://www.avensonline.org/fulltextarticles/JAP-2330-2178-07-0046.html

Barrett, S.P., Darredeau, C. and Pihl, R.O. (2006), “Patterns of simultaneous polysubstance use in drug-using university students.” Hum. Psychopharmacol. Clin. Exp., 21: 255-263. doi:10.1002/hup.766, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16783813/.

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