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Dangers of Benzodiazepines

the word "danger" graffiti on the ground

Benzodiazepines are a popular treatment for a variety of disorders, including anxiety and sleep. While short-term use of benzodiazepines is generally considered safe and effective, long-term use can lead to abuse as you build up a tolerance to the drug.

What Are Benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines are a class of drugs used to treat anxiety as well as other conditions such as seizures and insomnia. They work by affecting neurotransmitters in the brain to reduce nerve activity and “calm” the brain. In particular, they impact the GABA neurotransmitter, which is considered a tranquilizing transmitter that slows down brain activity.

Benzodiazepines enhance the calming effect of the GABA neurotransmitter by giving the neuron a negative charge, which helps curb anxiety. They also release additional chemicals that create a calming effect. Benzodiazepines are one of the most prescribed type of drugs in the United States and have been prescribed widely for decades.

What Are Benzodiazepines Used For?

Benzodiazepines are used to treat several conditions, including:

  1. Anxiety disorders: This includes generalized anxiety as well as phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  2. Convulsive disorders: Benzodiazepines can help treat seizures typically caused by conditions such as epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy.
  3. Sleep disorders: Benzodiazepines are sometimes prescribed to treat insomnia and other sleep issues.
  4. Detox: They can also help people detox from other substances such as alcohol.

All benzodiazepines work similarly, but they vary in strength and duration of action. Popular brands of benzodiazepine drugs include:

  • Xanax®: Typically used to treat anxiety and panic disorders, Xanax is the most commonly prescribed benzodiazepine in the U.S. It is an intermediate-acting drug, meaning it is active in your system for less than a day.
  • Ativan®: Doctors commonly prescribe Ativan for treating anxiety, but it can also help with seizure disorders such as epilepsy.
  • Klonopin®: In addition to treating anxiety, Klonopin can help with certain seizure disorders. Klonopin is a longer-acting drug which can stay in your system for a few days.
  • Restoril®: Restoril is a sedative used for the short-term treatment of insomnia.
  • Valium®: This is an anxiety-reducing and anticonvulsant drug. It is used to treat a variety of issues such as panic attacks, restless leg syndrome, insomnia, seizures and alcohol withdrawal. Valium is another long-acting drug.

What Are Common Side Effects of Benzodiazepines?

There are a few common side effects associated with benzodiazepine use, such as:

  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Sleepiness
  • Confusion
  • Nausea
  • Vertigo
  • Headache
  • Depression
  • Memory loss

Among these side effects, drowsiness, sleepiness and dizziness are the most frequently reported. In addition to these side effects, long-term use of a benzodiazepine can lead to physical dependency or addiction. This is a significant concern when it comes to benzodiazepine risks and dangers.

Why Are Benzodiazepines Dangerous?

When used as directed, benzodiazepines can be an effective and safe form of treatment. But according to findings from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), there are some significant dangers associated with misuse. Here are some telling facts and figures about benzodiazepine use:

  • In 2011, 127 million prescriptions of benzodiazepines were filled.
  • In 2010, 124,902 people were taken to the emergency room for a Xanax overdose, more than any other benzodiazepine.
  • In 2011, there were 39,408 confiscations of Xanax made by law enforcement.
  • In 2010, there were 6,507 drug overdose deaths involving benzodiazepines in the U.S.
  • 20.4 million Americans ages 12 and older have misused a benzodiazepine.
  • 95% of hospital admissions for benzodiazepines reported additional substance abuse.

Risks of Using Benzodiazepines

Overall, the biggest benzodiazepine risks are the potential for misuse and physical dependency. For most people, using a benzodiazepine on a short-term basis, such as over a few months and more infrequently, does not typically lead to the person developing a tolerance or dependence. But over several months of use, the chances for tolerance increase. Long-term use also makes it more likely people will experience withdrawal symptoms when reducing the dosage. Withdrawal symptoms can actually be the exact issues the drugs were designed to help, including:

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Cravings
  • Anxiety
  • Headache
  • Heart palpitations
  • Muscle stiffness

Withdrawal from short-acting benzodiazepines such as Xanax starts much more quickly than withdrawal from longer-acting drugs such as Klonopin because it takes a shorter amount of time to leave the body. Withdrawal symptoms are also usually less intense with longer-acting benzodiazepines.

Signs of Benzodiazepine Overdose

Overdosing on a benzodiazepine is a serious and sometimes fatal risk of misuse. It is typically most dangerous when mixed with other substances such as opioids or alcohol. Here are some common symptoms to look out for.

  • Slurred speech
  • Confusion
  • Shaking
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Slow heartbeat
  • Severe drowsiness
  • Severe weakness

How to Treat Benzodiazepine Misuse

When it comes to treating dependence and misuse of a benzodiazepine, a tapering program is best. Quitting cold turkey can lead to increased physical and mental stress from intensified withdrawal symptoms. If you have taken a benzodiazepine regularly for even just a month, stopping use immediately can lead to withdrawal symptoms. Patients may also experience the rebound effect where their anxiety, sleeplessness or restlessness may increase for a few days after stopping the medication.

Therefore, it is best to work closely with a physician, psychiatrist or other medical provider to implement a tapering program, meaning a slow and controlled decline in the use of the benzodiazepine. Every person’s body is affected differently, so it’s important to tailor the tapering program to the individual and monitor closely. It can take several weeks to several months to taper off, depending on the individual and their usage.

Contact BAART Programs Today

BAART Programs is a medication-assisted treatment (MAT) program that provides help to those suffering from opioid use disorders. We screen for the usage of multiple substances and can work collaboratively with other medical providers to support our patients who may be discontinuing their use opioids along with benzodiazepines. With benzodiazepines, in particular, use with opioids can depress the central nervous system and cause many issues that will affect your treatment plan. At BAART Programs, we always take this into account to make sure our patients receive the best treatment possible. We have offered MAT programs and counseling for over 40 years and are committed to providing the best care. Contact our team of experts for more information and talk to us about questions you may have.

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