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What Are Beta Blockers?

Side effects of beta blockers may include insomnia.
Beta blockers may help with issues like stage fright.
Beta blockers are often prescribed to treat hypertension.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 28 October 2014
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Beta blockers or beta-adrenergic blocking agents are medications that change the way the body responds to adrenaline (epinephrine). Essentially, they block or nullify much of the function of epinephrine, which can have an effect on the way the heart works. In particular, these substances reduce the number of heartbeats and force of each beat, which reduces blood pressure and improves heart function. Though most often used to treat conditions like congestive heart failure or high blood pressure, they have many other uses.

These medications may certainly improve blood pressure but they’re not necessarily first line treatment for high blood pressure. They also might not be prescribed alone, and they aren’t restricted to use in people with hypertension. Beta blockers are particularly useful in treating congestive heart failure, and other conditions like abnormalities in heart rhythm and angina.

It would be a mistake to think of beta blockers as solely heart medications. They’ve been found effective in the treatment of migraines, hyperthyroidism and glaucoma too. Some types of these medications are used as anti-anxiety meds, like buspirone.

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Studies have recently focused on how blocking adrenaline effects may be particularly helpful in anxiety producing situations like a public performance. Unlike tranquilizers, beta blockers don’t tend to sedate or cause sleepiness, so they may not affect the performance, but they can take away stage fright. It should be noted that some people don’t find buspirone effective, and may benefit from a different medication, either another beta blocker or a different class of drugs.

Doctors often note that people who take beta blockers for conditions like congestive heart failure often don’t feel well the first few months. In fact, people may feel like their symptoms are worsening instead of improving. The body eventually copes with the different way adrenaline is being processed, and improvement tends to be noted about two months after treatment starts.

There are many beta blockers available and these include some of the following: buspirone, atenelol, propranolol, metroprolol, bisoprolol, carvedilol, and labetol. These may have numerous trademarked names too. Each may have slightly different side effects, but common side effects of these meds can include dizziness or lightheadedness, insomnia, indigestion, stomach upset, constipation, flatulence and weight gain. Others may experience side effects like erectile dysfunction and depression.

Some people shouldn’t take beta blockers. They’re generally not prescribed to those who suffer from diabetes because they can adversely affect blood sugar. They may also not be indicated in those who are asthma sufferers since they increase asthma attack frequency. Another possible risk exists for those with major depressive illnesses. Since beta blockers may fuel depression, they may render ineffective other medications used to treat it.

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