Barbiturates are central nervous system (CNS) depressants, sometimes referred to as sedatives and tranquilizers, that can slow normal brain function. Because of this property, some CNS depressants, such as mephobarbital (Mebral) and pentobarbital sodium (Nembutal) are useful in the treatment of anxiety and sleep disorders. Despite these benefits, barbiturates have tremendous potential for abuse if they are not used as prescribed.
Effects of Barbiturates
During the first few days of taking a prescribed CNS depressant, a person feels sleepy and uncoordinated, but as the body becomes accustomed to the drug, these feelings begin to disappear. Tolerance for the drug develops if it is used long term, and increasingly larger doses are necessary to achieve the same initial effects. Continued use can lead to physical dependence and withdrawal when usage is reduced or stopped.
Because all barbiturates work by slowing the brain’s activity, when an individual stops taking them, the brain’s activity can respond by racing out of control, potentially leading to seizures and other harmful consequences. Withdrawal from prolonged use of barbiturates can have life-threatening complications. Therefore, someone who is abusing barbiturates and is thinking about stopping, or who is suffering withdrawal from barbiturates, should seek medical treatment.
Patients addicted to barbiturates should not attempt to stop taking them on their own. Addicted individuals should undergo medically supervised detoxification because the treatment dose must be gradually tapered. Inpatient counseling can help the individual during this process. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, which focuses on modifying the patient’s thinking, expectations, and behaviors, while at the same time increasing skills for coping with various life stressors, has been successful in helping individuals overcome their addiction. Because barbiturate abuse often occurs in conjunction with the abuse of another substance or drug, such as alcohol or cocaine, treatment must be flexible and adaptable in order to address multiple addictions.