How Does Ativan (Lorazepam) Work?

A Common Treatment for Panic Disorder

Pharmacist talking to customer about prescription
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Ativan (lorazepam) is a common medication used for the treatment of panic disorder and other anxiety conditions. It's a type of benzodiazepine, a class of medications sometimes referred to as sedatives or tranquilizers due to their calming and relaxing effect on the body. Other common benzodiazepines include Xanax (alprazolam), Klonopin (clonazepam), and Valium (diazepam)

While Ativan is most frequently used to treat generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder, it's often prescribed to treat other illnesses, despite not being approved for them by the Food and Drug Administration (aka an "off-label use"). For instance, some doctors prescribe Ativan for bipolar disorder, alcohol withdrawal, to prevent nausea and vomiting during chemotherapy, and for insomnia.

How Ativan Treats Panic Disorder

Neurotransmitters in the brain, known as gamma-aminobutyric acid receptors (GABA), are partly responsible for regulating sleep and feelings of relaxation and anxiety. Ativan acts on these receptors to slow down the central nervous system (CNS). This reduces excess agitation and excitement in the brain, inducing a calming and relaxing effect. By depressing the CNS, Ativan is also able to lessen the intensity of anxiety and panic attacks.

Ativan works quickly, making it an effective solution to temporarily managing panic symptoms. The drug enters your system relatively rapidly and lasts a few hours. This means that Ativan may need to be taken a few times a day to control anxiety and other symptoms. For some, Ativan will need to be taken for several weeks before experiencing the benefits.

Side Effects of Ativan

Some of the most common side effects of Ativan include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Dry mouth
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Loss of interest in sex
  • Constipation
  • Heartburn
  • Dizziness and lightheadedness
  • Lack of coordination or unsteadiness
  • Blurred vision

If these side effects continue or increase in severity, contact your doctor.

Some serious side effects are also possible if you take Ativan. These include mental and mood changes, hallucinations, thoughts of suicide, difficulty walking, and breathing issues. If you experience any of these symptoms, call your doctor right away.

Ativan and Addiction

Like all benzodiazepines, Ativan is classified as a controlled substance, which means its possession and use is regulated by the government. Ativan has the potential to be abused, leading to physical or psychological dependence. Typical withdrawal symptoms include sleep disturbances, irritability, increased nervousness, and muscle cramps.

Your doctor will likely discuss strategies to minimize the risk for addiction. Never attempt to stop your medication on your own. Should you decide to discontinue your prescription, your prescribing doctor will assist you in gradually decreasing your dosage.

Additional Precautions

Caution should be taken if you have a history of certain medical conditions. Before taking Ativan, consult your doctor if you've been diagnosed with these or any other medical condition:

Drug Interactions: Ativan depresses the central nervous system (CNS). Alcohol and certain medications that have a similar effect on the CNS should be avoided. Make certain that your doctor is up to date on all of your current prescription and over-the-counter medications.

Drowsiness and Dizziness: Feeling tired and lightheaded are common side effects of Ativan. Until you are used to how this medication affects you, caution should be taken while driving or performing other tasks that require your full attention and concentration.

Pregnancy and Nursing: It is possible for Ativan to be passed to a child during pregnancy or while breastfeeding. Talk to your doctor about the risk of using Ativan while pregnant or nursing.

Older Adults: The side effects of Ativan are often more noticeable in older adults. To limit these effects, your doctor may need to adjust your dosage.

This information is intended to provide a general overview of the use of Ativan for panic disorder. Any questions or concerns you may have about your prescription should be addressed with your doctor or pharmacist.

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