Sleeping pills can be deadly for obese patients according to new study

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by Eric Pearson

Approximately two-thirds of Americans are overweight and one-third of Americans are obese. Overweight and obese individuals are at a much higher risk for a condition known as sleep apnea. Sleep apnea causes patients to have pauses in breathing or shallow breaths while sleeping. Sleep apnea alone puts patients at an increased risk of fatal respiratory depression. Adding sleeping pills magnifies that risk.

According to a study published in March 2012, obese patients taking sleeping pills—e.g., Ambien (zolpidem) and Restoril (temazepam)—were 9.3 times more likely to die than obese patients who did not. One of the study’s authors, Robert Langer, M.D., MPH, suggested that the combination of sleep apnea, which affects the urge to breathe during sleep, and sleeping pills, which may dull the urge to breathe, may explain the increased risk of death for obese patients taking sleeping pills.

The prescribing information for some sleeping pills also discusses the increased risk these pills pose to patients with sleep apnea or other breathing problems. For example, the prescribing information for Ambien (zolpidem) states:

Caution is advisable in using Ambien in patients with diseases or conditions that could affect metabolism or hemodynamic responses.

[A] reduction in the Total Arousal Index together with a reduction in lowest oxygen saturation and increase in the times of oxygen desaturation below 80% and 90% was observed in patients with mild-to-moderate sleep apnea when treated with Ambien when compared with placebo. Since sedative/hypnotics have the capacity to decrease the respiratory drive, precautions should be taken if Ambien is prescribed to patients with compromised respiratory function. Post-marketing reports of respiratory insufficiency, most of which involved patients with pre-existing respiratory impairment, have been received. Ambien should be used with caution in patients with sleep apnea syndrome. . . .

Giving sleeping pills to a patient with sleep apnea can be deadly. It is therefore important for doctors to be extremely cautious when prescribing sleeping pills to obese patients, many of whom likely have undiagnosed sleep apnea.

If a loved one died from an accidental overdose of a sleep medication or other prescription drug, you may be entitled to compensation from the prescribing doctor. The lawyers at Heygood, Orr & Pearson have handled dozens of lawsuits involving medical malpractice related to drug prescriptions, and are available for a free legal consultation about your case. To find out if you are eligible, call us toll-free at 1-877-446-9001, or fill out our free online case evaluation form, and one of our representatives will contact you for more information.