CNS Depressants: Treatment for Anxiety and Sleep Disorders

People with back or neck pain often experience associated health issues—anxiety and sleep disorders are two common ones. In addition to being distressing on their own, these problems can worsen your spine pain. To address your anxiety and sleep disorders, your doctor may prescribe you a CNS depressant. This article will describe the important facts you need to know to safely use this medication.

Man holding his head in frustration, lying awake in bedCNS depressants have helped countless people who have back and neck pain reduce their anxiety and get a good night’s sleep. Photo Source:

Types of CNS Depressants

CNS depressants work in your brain—which is where the “CNS” comes from (it stands for central nervous system, and your brain and spinal cord comprise that system). These medications slow normal brain function, which is why they are used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders.

Below are types of CNS depressants:

  • Benzodiazepines: Examples of this type of medication include diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax), triazolam (Halcion), and estazolam (ProSom). Benzodiazepines are typically prescribed to treat anxiety disorders and sleep disorders on a short-term basis, as using them for long periods increases the risk of addiction and dependence.
  • Non-benzodiazepine sleep aids: Examples of this type of medication include zolpidem (Ambien), eszopiclone (Lunesta), and zalepon (Sonata). These drugs are like benzodiazepines in that they both work on the same brain receptors, but non-benzodiazepine sleep drugs have fewer reported side effects and less dependence risk.
  • Barbiturates: Examples of this type of medication include mephobarbital (Mebaral), phenobarbital (Luminal Sodium), and pentobarbital sodium (Nembutal). Barbiturates aren’t as commonly prescribed for anxiety or sleep disorders because they have a higher overdose risk compared to benzodiazepines.  

How Do CNS Depressants Work?

Most CNS depressants affect a neurotransmitter in your brain called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals that allow brain cells to communicate with each other.

GABA decreases brain activity, so CNS depressants generally work to increase GABA. By doing this, your brain activity slows—this results in a sleepy, calming effect.

Key Things to Know about CNS Depressants

CNS depressants have helped countless people who have back and neck pain reduce their anxiety and get a good night’s sleep, but they come with significant potential side effects and should be used with caution.

Below are some things to consider if you’ve been prescribed a CNS depressant.

  • Take the drugs only as prescribed. Barbiturates and benzodiazepines, in particular, have the potential for abuse and should be used only as prescribed.
  • Your body needs time to get accustomed to the medication. During the first few days of taking a CNS depressant, you may feel sleepy and uncoordinated. Those sensations should go away as your body gets used to the drug.  
  • Long-term use increases serious risks. Long-term use of CNS depressants may result in you developing a tolerance for the drug. This means you will need a larger dose to get the same results that you did when you began  taking the medication. In addition, continued use can lead to physical dependence and withdrawal once the medication is reduced or stopped.
  • Talk to your doctor if you have withdrawal symptoms or would like to stop taking your medication. Because CNS depressants slow brain activity, the brain's activity can rebound and race out of control if you stop taking the drug. This can possibly lead to seizures and other harmful consequences. Though rare, withdrawal from long-term use of CNS depressants can have life-threatening complications. Therefore, talk to your doctor or seek medical treatment if you’re thinking about discontinuing CNS depressant therapy or are suffering withdrawal from a CNS depressant.

Is It Safe to Take CNS Depressants with Other Medications?

Tell your doctor if you are taking other medications in addition to a CNS depressant—even if the other medicine is an over-the-counter pill to manage your back and neck pain. Taking multiple drugs with a CNS depressant should be done only under your doctor’s supervision. 

Typically, CNS depressants should not be combined with any other medication or substance that causes CNS depression, including prescription pain medicines, some over-the-counter cold and allergy medications, or alcohol.

Using CNS depressants with these substances can slow both the heart and respiration, and possibly lead to death. See your doctor right away if you experience slowed breathing and these other symptoms of CNS depression:

  • Staggering and lack of coordination
  • Drowsiness
  • Blurred vision
  • Slurred speech
  • Impaired thinking, reflexes, and perception of time and space
  • Reduced pain sensitivity

Sleep Better and Reduce Your Anxiety the Safe Way

Having back and neck pain can be hard to live with, but adding an anxiety or sleep disorder can truly damage your quality of life. CNS depressants can help relieve sleep and anxiety issues, but it’s essential to use them safely to prevent other problems. Talk to your doctor about the appropriate way to use these medications, so you can get back to enjoying life—both day and night.

Updated on: 07/26/19
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