Benzodiazepines are a common prescription medication that’s used to treat issues that affect many Americans, including anxiety and insomnia. As California deals with the current opioid crisis, common benzodiazepine prescriptions also play a role in substance use problems and overdose. Though benzodiazepines can cause chemical dependence and addiction, it can be treated with medical detoxification.

Learn more about benzodiazepine detox in California and the need for safe and effective detox.

How Benzodiazepines Affect California

Around eight percent of Californians have a substance use disorder of some kind. More than six percent have a disorder related to alcohol misuse. In 2018, there were 67,367 drug overdose deaths in the country. California has been hit hard by the opioid crisis, with 45 percent of all overdose deaths in the state coming from opioids. Benzodiazepines are commonly used, though benzo use disorders aren’t as common as other substance use problems. However, people taking benzodiazepines may increase their risk of serious side effects if they combine the drug with commonly misused substances like opioids or alcohol. The majority of fatal benzodiazepine overdose cases involve other drugs.

Substance use disorders often require access to treatment to effectively address them. As Californians face public health issues related to addiction, increased access to addiction treatment services could help alleviate the problem. Addiction treatment is healthcare and could be life-saving in many cases. 

What are Benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines are central nervous system medications that are used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders. They may also be used as an anesthetic or as a muscle relaxant. Sleep problems and anxiety are two of the most common health issues that Americans face. A third of Americans don’t get the recommended amount of sleep, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Anxiety disorders affect around 40 million people in the U.S. each year. Because benzos can help manage two very common issues, they are very popular.

Benzos were first introduced in the 1960s, and they became the most commonly prescribed drug in the world by the 1970s. Today, they’re still prescribed frequently and used to treat the same problems. However, there are now other options like non-benzodiazepine “z-drugs” like Ambien when it comes to treating insomnia. 

Benzodiazepines work by interacting with a chemical in your brain called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). This chemical binds with its receptors in the brain to facilitate sleep and relaxation. People with sleep problems or anxiety may have some psychological or biological issue that prevents their natural GABA activity from being enough to relax them. Benzos bind to GABA receptors and increase the effectiveness of the binding GABA. This can lead to more pronounced sedation and relaxation. It can also relieve anxieties. 

Benzodiazepines can also cause some side effects, including drowsiness, impaired cognitive ability, impaired memory, and slow reaction time. Higher doses can create intoxication that’s similar to alcohol, and it may be abused for that purpose. Benzodiazepine side effects tend to affect older people more intensely. Next morning drowsiness, memory problems, and impaired motor functions can occur in the elderly, even with regular prescribed use. High doses of benzodiazepines can cause overdose symptoms like extreme sedation and respiratory depression. Only very high doses are known to be life-threatening; however, mixing benzodiazepines with opioids or other depressants like alcohol can be deadly.

Can Benzodiazepines Cause Addiction?

Benzodiazepines can cause both chemical dependence and addiction. Benzodiazepines are recommended for short-term therapeutic use, usually over a few weeks to a month. Long-term use can lead to chemical dependence, which is when your brain gets used to the drug and adapts to rely on it. Signs of dependence include uncomfortable symptoms if you miss a dose, trying and failing to cut back, cravings for the drug, or feeling like your normal dose is less effective. Tolerance is the most common symptom of dependence. Tolerance occurs when your body adapts to the consistent presence of a drug in a way that counteracts it. You may feel you need to take higher doses to achieve the same effects.

Benzodiazepines can also cause substance use disorders and addiction. As a depressant, benzos can cause a euphoric, relaxing high, similar to alcohol. Addiction is a disease that affects your brain’s reward center, which is designed to pick up on healthy, rewarding activities like eating. Using depressant drugs like benzos can manipulate rewarding chemicals in your brain like dopamine. Your brain may respond to this dopamine release and treat benzo use like other important life-sustaining activities. Addiction is characterized by continued use of the drug despite dangerous consequences to your health, relationships, or finances. 

Is Benzodiazepine Detox Necessary?

Benzodiazepines are central nervous system depressants like alcohol. They’re in a class of drugs that can be dangerous and even life-threatening during withdrawal symptoms. Benzodiazepines work by suppressing nervous system activity. As you become chemically dependent on the drug, your brain chemistry may adapt to counteract it to achieve balance. 

If you stop using the drug, the restraining chemical will be removed, and your nervous system will become overactive. The most common withdrawal side effect is called rebounding, which is the return of symptoms that the drug was used to treat. In this case, rebounding can cause insomnia and anxiety symptoms. It may also cause general discomfort, restlessness, and jitters.

The most severe symptoms occur when you quit abruptly after a long period of benzo use in high doses. If your body has been adapting to high doses of the drug, removing it suddenly can be the most jarring on your nervous system. Withdrawal symptoms can include panic attacks, sleeplessness, muscle spasms, twitching, seizures, and a condition called delirium tremens. 

Delirium tremens is a condition that’s most often seen in alcohol withdrawal, but it may occur after severe benzodiazepine dependence. The condition involves the sudden onset of agitation, confusion, terror, tremors, hallucination, and heart palpitations. Delirium tremens is treatable with medical care, but if it’s left untreated, it can be fatal.

How Benzodiazepine Detox Works

Medical detox is the highest level of care in addiction treatment. It includes 24 hours of medically managed treatment services. Detox takes place in a medical inpatient setting and may involve the use of medications to treat symptoms or to taper you off of the drug. Tapering may involve a benzodiazepine that’s administered in smaller and smaller doses. Effective tapering usually needs a medical professional’s guidance to get the doses and timeline right. 

 

The main goal of medical detox is to help your body adapt to life without the drug safely. However, detox may also address psychological and social issues. You may meet with a therapist to create a treatment plan to help address some of the underlying issues that may have led to your substance use disorder. For people that develop addictions to benzodiazepines, anxiety disorders are a common problem that needs to be addressed.

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