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Benzodiazepine Addiction

Benzodiazepines, popularly known as “benzos,” is prescription medicine taken for the treatment of panic disorders, anxiety disorders, insomnia,severe alcohol withdrawal, and seizures. 

Benzodiazepines are effective at the therapeutic level. However, when abused and misused, the outcomes can be fatal. There are three categories which describe how long the effects last. Those are ultra-short acting, short-acting, and long-acting. 

The medications are meant to be taken for the short-term as they are very addictive. It is a  tough challenge to end dependence on them.

 It is even possible to develop an addiction to a benzodiazepine without realizing it. People prescribed these medications are at risk of developing a physical or psychological dependence on it as well as those who use the drugs illicitly.

If there are noticeable changes in the way one feels, thinks, or behaves as a result of stopping or reducing benzodiazepine use, withdrawal likely has set in. Symptoms that are uncomfortable or painful characterize this period. People who have substance use disorder are at a higher risk of developing an addiction to benzodiazepines and should tell their doctor before they take these medications.

How Benzodiazepines Work

Benzodiazepines work by attaching themselves to the brain’s gamma–aminobutyric-acid (GABA) receptors, which are responsible for inducing calm or relaxed feelings. These effects appeal to some people. They  misuse and abuse the drugs to get the effects. 

Addiction to benzodiazepines can include:

  • Taking the drugs without a prescription
  • Taking them to get high
  • Taking them in excess or higher doses than prescribed
  • Taking them in ways in which they were not designed
  • Mixing them with alcohol or opioids and other substances to obtain stronger effects
  • Crushing the pills or dissolving them so they can be injected into the body

Common Benzodiazepines 

Klonopin – Klonopin (generically known as clonazepam) is a medication that is prescribed to treat anxiety and seizures. Klonopin is intended for short-term use. It can be highly addictive, so users are at risk of developing a dependence if they take it longer than prescribed or in higher doses than recommended by their doctor. 

Xanax – Xanax (generically known as alprazolam), reportedly is one of the most widely prescribed and widely abused benzodiazepines on the market. People take the drug to manage anxiety disorders, including anxiety disorders caused by depression, panic disorders, and other conditions. This drug can make users drowsy and feel out of it as it slows down the nervous system. Its fast-acting properties make it susceptible to abuse.

Librium – Librium (generically known as chlordiazepoxide) is a slow-acting benzodiazepine. It is commonly used to treat people who are in alcohol withdrawal, but it should still be handled with care. When the medication is not used as prescribed, it can be dangerous and lead to a deadly overdose. Chronic alcohol users have been known to abuse Librium, thus creating a second addiction. Withdrawing from both substances simultaneously presents its own challenges, so that process should be done under the supervision of medical personnel. 

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Ativan – Ativan (generically known as lorazepam) is a known anti-anxiety drug. The sedative–intended for short-term treatment–suppresses the central nervous system and calms users down. This potent medication should never be mixed with depressants, such as alcohol. Doing so can lead to seizures, coma, or death.

Valium – Physicians prescribe Valium (generically known as diazepam) to treat anxiety, insomnia, panic attacks, muscle spasms, and seizure disorders. The long-acting sedative is one of the more widely recognized and used benzodiazepine medications. Some people who abuse Valium may later abuse heroin, especially if they are unable to secure more of the prescription medication to satisfy their addictions.

The Signs of Benzodiazepine Addiction

The signs of addiction manifest in different ways for different people. However, symptoms that tend to appear in most people who are dependent on benzodiazepines include:

  • Tremors
  • Memory impairment
  • Muscle spasms
  • Dysphoria
  • Depression
  • Appetite loss
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Lightheadedness
  • Sensory sensitivity
  • Motor impairment
  • Mood swings
  • Hallucinations
  • Drowsiness
  • Numbness
  • Muscle pain

If you are addicted to benzodiazepines, you may experience all or just some of these symptoms. You also will likely find it difficult to stop and that using the drug is the only way to feel normal. This is because you have developed a dependence, and your body now needs the benzo to stay chemically balanced.

If you see these symptoms in yourself or someone close to you, don’t hesitate to reach out to a qualified treatment center. Stopping cold turkey or otherwise attempting a home detox can be ineffective at best and dangerous at worst. 

Benzodiazepine Withdrawal

As soon as you stop taking benzos after prolonged use, your body will begin to go into withdrawal. The symptoms of this can range from mild and irritating to dangerous and debilitating. Here are some of the benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms in which to keep an eye out:

  • Fatigue
  • Feverishness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Headaches
  • Cramps in the abdomen
  • Increased heart rate
  • Mood swings
  • Increased irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Uncontrolled crying
  • Muscle pain
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Muscle spasms
  • Hallucinations
  • Nightmares

Remember that benzos are used to treat and suppress anxiety and insomnia, so by stopping use, these conditions may rebound and become much stronger than they were when you began using the drug. Many people try to quit using benzodiazepines cold turkey on their own, but find the withdrawal symptoms to be too much and relapse.

How Dangerous are Benzodiazepines?

Even though they are prescribed for common disorders like sleep and anxiety issues,  benzodiazepines are potent depressants that should be taken seriously. Benzos work in a way that’s similar to alcohol and barbiturates, though they are said to be safer. 

In high doses, benzos can cause intoxication that’s similar to alcohol. You may experience sedation, slurred speech, a loss of motor control, confusion, headache, and depression. During an overdose, benzos can suppress your nervous system to a dangerous degree that starts to affect your autonomic nervous system. 

Your autonomic nervous system controls some of the automatic functions that your brain is responsible for, like breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. High doses of depressants like benzos can lower your heart rate and blood pressure and slow or stop your breathing. This can lead to brain damage, coma, or death.

Accidental overdose deaths are rare when benzodiazepines are taken on their own. However, they may be more likely when the drug is taken with other substances like opioids, barbiturates, alcohol, or other prescription sleep aids. Mixing benzos with other depressants can lead to a phenomenon called potentiation,  which is when two or more drugs with similar effects work together to cause an intense reaction. When benzos potentiate with other substances, they can cause an overdose with relatively small doses of each respective drug individually. 

Benzodiazepines, like other depressants, can be dangerous during withdrawal. When you become dependent on a benzodiazepine, your brain will get used to the drug by adapting around it. It may try to balance brain chemistry by increasing the excitatory chemicals it releases and decreasing your own natural depressants. When you stop using, you’ll experience the consequences of a chemical imbalance. 

The excitatory chemicals in your brain will no longer be held back by the drug, and your nervous system might become overactive. This can cause insomnia, anxiety, paranoia, confusion, and general discomfort. However, in some cases, it can cause seizures and a deadly condition called delirium tremens. For that reason, if you start to feel the effects of benzodiazepine withdrawal, it’s important to speak to a medical professional as soon as possible. 

What Is Involved in Benzodiazepine Addiction Treatment?

If you have a substance use disorder involving benzodiazepines, the best thing to do is to seek treatment at an addiction recovery center. By contacting a facility, you will be put in touch with addiction specialists who will assess your situation and work with you to create a treatment plan based on the severity of your addiction.

Detox

The first step for benzodiazepine addiction is often a medically supervised detoxification. In this stage, you will rid your body of addictive substances under the watchful eye of medical professionals. This way, you will be free from acute withdrawal symptoms when you enter the next phase of treatment. Detox usually is recommended when it comes to benzodiazepines, but it is absolutely critical if other substances such as alcohol or opioids are involved. 

Residential

Once detox is over, you may be recommended to start residential treatment, which involves living at a facility for 30-90 days as you participate in daily therapies, both individually and in a group setting. Studies show that the longer you spend in treatment, the higher your chances are of achieving long-term sobriety.

Outpatient

After residential treatment, you will make the transition back home or into a sober living home. From here, you can ease back into everyday life while still participating in outpatient treatment programs such as partial hospitalization or intensive outpatient. Many people choose outpatient because they can’t put life on hold for 30-plus days for residential treatment.

Benzodiazepine Addiction Statistics

  • 9,000 people died due to overdoses on benzodiazepines in 2015
  • There was three times the number of admissions due to benzodiazepine addiction in 2008 than in 1998.
  • In 2013, there were 13.5 million people with benzodiazepine prescriptions.

Sources

Dodds, T, (August, 2016).Prescribed Benzodiazepines and Suicide Risk: A Review of the Literature. Psychiatrist. Retrieved from https://www.psychiatrist.com/PCC/article/Pages/2017/v19n02/16r02037.aspx

Chouinard, G, (January, 1983).New concepts in benzodiazepine therapy: rebound anxiety and new indications for the more potent benzodiazepines. Pub Med. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6141609

Kennedy, M. (2016, February 26). Benzodiazepine prescriptions, overdose deaths on the rise in U.S. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-rxdrugs-benzodiazepine-overdos/benzodiazepine-prescriptions-overdose-deaths-on-the-rise-in-u-s-idUSKCN0VZ2TU

RxList. (2018, September 24). Barbiturates: Side Effects, Dosages, Treatment, Interactions, Warnings. Retrieved from https://www.rxlist.com/consumer_barbiturates/drugs-condition.htm

Ogbru, A., & Marks, J. W. (2018, February 6). Benzodiazepines Drug Class: Side Effects, Types & Uses. Retrieved from https://www.rxlist.com/benzodiazepines/drugs-condition.htm

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