Understanding Benzodiazepine Addiction
Due to its sedative effect, benzodiazepines are often prescribed to help anxiety or sleep problems. In the past several decades, the quantity of benzodiazepines prescribed has increased. While benzodiazepines (or benzos) can be effective in treating symptoms in the short term, long-term use has been associated with various health risks.
Benzodiazepines can be difficult to withdraw from and are often misused in non-medical situations. There are many risks associated with benzodiazepine addiction and abuse, affecting both mental and physical health.
What Are Benzodiazepines?
Benzodiazepines are a class of drugs that act as depressants, meaning they slow down the activity of the central nervous system. Benzodiazepines are used for treating anxiety or sleep problems, as the effects of the drug help to slow down the body and brain. Short-term use of benzodiazepine medications can have benefits for people suffering from sleep or panic disorders. However, there are concerns among health professionals about long-term use.
While these drugs can be helpful in medical situations, they are often misused for non-medical purposes. Benzodiazepines are often misused to get high or to help come down from other stimulant drugs. Misuse of benzodiazepines can lead to addiction and can increase the risk of overdose or death.
Types of Benzos
There are many types of benzodiazepines, and they are commonly known by their generic or brand name. The list of benzodiazepines and their better-known brand names includes:
Side Effects of Benzo Use
Although using benzos can benefit people with certain conditions, long-term use of the drug can be associated with health problems. The use of benzodiazepines can have various side effects when it’s first used and after long-term or repeated use.
The side effects of benzodiazepines can include:
- Slurring of speech
- Memory problems
- Over-sedation or feeling ‘heavy’
- Increased risk of falling
- Double vision
- Feelings of euphoria or isolation
These side effects are usually the result of an inappropriate dose for a patient, but they can resolve once the dose is adjusted or some tolerance to the drug is developed. These side effects may worsen if benzos are used with alcohol. Long-term use of many benzos is not recommended because it can worsen additional side effects or lead to dependence.
Are Benzodiazepines Addictive?
The question of whether benzodiazepines are addictive has shaped how doctors prescribe benzos. One study shows that people who stop taking benzos may have their anxiety or insomnia symptoms return, which encourages patients to keep taking the medication.
It is estimated that nearly one in 20 American adults use prescription benzodiazepines. However, rates of use are likely to be much higher when including those who misuse benzos to self-medicate.
Although there is a debate about whether benzos themselves are addictive, stopping the use of benzodiazepines has been linked with unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. These can include nightmares, difficulty concentrating, memory issues, muscle spasms or insomnia. These withdrawal symptoms can be worse if a patient is coming off a high dose or has been taking the medication for a long time.
Slowly tapering off medication can reduce the risk of benzodiazepine dependence. However, many users may continue to use benzos to avoid the symptoms. The combination of not wanting symptoms to return and fear of withdrawal symptoms can lead to dependent use or misuse of benzos.
Risks of Benzodiazepine Abuse
As with many medications, there can be risks associated with using benzodiazepines, even if they are prescribed for medical use. These are typically associated with longer-term use or misuse of the drugs. The risks of benzodiazepines can include:
- Memory disturbances
- Personality changes
- Irritability or paranoia
- Difficulty sleeping or nightmares
- Anxiety or depression
- Lack of motivation
These risks can be amplified if benzodiazepines are combined with other drugs or alcohol. Combining benzos with other substances can lead to difficulties breathing, overdose or death.
In cases where benzos have been used long-term or misused, the withdrawal process can include risks. Specifically, benzo withdrawal has the risk of seizures. Therefore, the process should be done slowly and, if possible, under supervision.
Statistics on Benzodiazepine Use
Estimates of benzodiazepine use statistics suggest that around 5.2% of American adults use this class of drugs. Rates of use tend to increase with age and are more common among women compared to men.
Although the main uses of benzos are related to mental health, most prescriptions were provided by non-psychiatrists. For mental health conditions like anxiety, this may suggest that medication is prescribed without therapy, which can make it harder to reduce medication use.
The misuse of benzodiazepines may include taking high doses or sustaining use at a high level. Some of the most commonly abused benzodiazepines include Rohypnol, Valium and Xanax. Many people who misuse benzos may also misuse other substances, such as alcohol or opioids. Co-use of these substances can increase the risk of overdose and death.
Treatment for Benzodiazepine Addiction
Benzodiazepine addiction treatment can include managing withdrawal symptoms and risks of side effects. For treating conditions like anxiety or insomnia, substituting medications for SSRIs or reducing the use of multiple benzos can be effective treatment methods.
Even in circumstances where benzos have been misused, there is a risk associated with benzo withdrawal. The medication should be reduced gradually over four to eight weeks.
Supervised withdrawal can be beneficial for patients with a psychiatric condition, multi-substance misuse or long-term misuse of benzos. Patients may benefit from inpatient facilities or rehab for benzodiazepine use to facilitate the withdrawal process. Treatment can also help patients develop coping strategies for underlying psychiatric symptoms and for recovery.
If you or a loved one is affected by benzodiazepine misuse or addiction, The Recovery Village Ridgefield is here to help. Contact us today to discuss treatment options and begin the path to recovery.
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Brett, Jonathan; Murnion, Bridin. “Management of benzodiazepine misuse and dependence.” Australian Prescriber, October 1, 2015. Accessed July 16, 2019.
Lader, M. “Benzodiazepine harm: how can it be reduced?” British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, August 10, 2012. Accessed July 16, 2019.
Alcohol and Drug Foundation. “Benzodiazepines.” June 27, 2019. Accessed July 16, 2019.
Jones, Jermaine; et al. “Polydrug abuse: a review of opioid and benzodiazepine combination use.” Drug and Alcohol Dependence, September 1, 2012. Accessed July 16, 2019.