Benzodiazepines are a class of drugs that affect gamma-aminobutyric acid, a neurotransmitter in the brain that suppresses nerve activity. Doctors typically prescribe benzodiazepines to treat anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, and seizures because they act as a depressant on the central nervous system.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), benzodiazepines are incredibly addictive, and practitioners who prescribe them make sure to monitor their patients closely for signs of dependence. In low doses, benzodiazepines act as sedatives; in moderate doses, they can fend off anxiety; and in high doses, benzodiazepines are hypnotic. Individuals who take them regularly eventually build up a tolerance and must take an increasingly higher dose to feel the same initial effects.
Brands of Benzodiazepines
There are more than a dozen brands of benzodiazepines that the FDA has approved for use in the United States. Some of the most commonly prescribed brands are:
- Xanax: This drug is typically used to treat panic attacks and anxiety in individuals who are depressed. There are two types of Xanax: regular and extended release, or Xanax XR. Xanax XR is especially dangerous when abused because its effects are meant to hit the body gradually and to last for 24 hours.
- Valium: This medication treats anxiety disorders and can be used to provide short-term relief. Doctors also use it to treat certain types of seizure disorders, muscle spasms, agitation, and tremors caused by alcohol withdrawal.
- Klonopin: This medication can treat epilepsy, seizures, anxiety, and panic attacks. It is a long-lasting benzodiazepine, but individuals with anxiety may take small doses of it throughout the day.
- Ativan: This drug is often used to treat anxiety in individuals who also exhibit depressive symptoms. It is usually taken in small doses throughout the day, with the largest dose being taken right before bedtime to help with anxiety-induced insomnia.
How Do People start Abusing
There are two ways in which people start abusing benzodiazepines. The first way is by taking them as prescribed by a doctor until a tolerance and then a dependence eventually develop. When dependence takes hold, individuals may start taking larger doses closer together despite their doctor’s orders, which is a form of drug abuse. People who have never had a prescription for benzodiazepines and obtain them illegally may also eventually develop an addiction to them.
According to a review originally published in JAMA Psychiatry, approximately 5.2 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 80 used benzodiazepines in 2008. Benzodiazepine abuse is a growing problem around the country, and NIDA reports that from 2001 to 2014, the total number of overdose deaths caused by benzodiazepines saw a fivefold increase.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of fatal prescription painkiller overdoses has increased by more than 400 percent among women between 1999 and 2013, compared to a 265-percent increase among men. Because women are more likely to be prescribed benzodiazepines, they are also more likely to abuse them. In addition, doctors may inappropriately prescribe these drugs to elderly patients who are depressed. Environmental factors, like low socioeconomic status and unemployment, may push someone to abuse the drugs. However, ultimately anyone can develop an addiction to benzodiazepines.
Signs and Symptoms of Addiction
When individuals do not use benzodiazepines as prescribed by their doctor, they can display several signs and experience certain symptoms that could indicate abuse and a budding addiction.
The most common symptoms of benzodiazepine abuse are:
- Increased respiratory infections
- Muscle weakness
- Slowed reaction time
- Memory impairment
Individuals who are addicted to benzodiazepines may also exhibit certain behaviors that are characteristic of the disease. For example, people who suffer from addiction may:
- Be unable to hold down a job
- Struggle to maintain healthy personal relationships
- Lose interest in old hobbies
- Experience legal problems
- Have financial issues
- Exhibit drug-seeking behavior
- Have suicidal thoughts and behaviors
If a loved one exhibits any of the above signs or symptoms, it could be indicative of benzodiazepine abuse. Kicking an addiction to benzodiazepines is hard, but it is not impossible. There are a variety of effective treatment options for those who are committed to staying sober.
The first step to beating a benzodiazepine addiction is undergoing medical detox. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, benzodiazepine withdrawal typically lasts 1-4 weeks, and 3-5 weeks with tapering. Depending on the extent of the addiction and the client’s health, doctors may opt for tapering off the drug slowly as opposed to stopping it entirely. The tapered approach is most common with benzodiazepine withdrawal.
Medical detox is important because benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms can be severe and even life-threatening in some instances. There is evidence on the subject of at least two deaths caused by benzodiazepine withdrawal, according to a review published in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology.