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Benzodiazepine Abuse, Addiction, and Treatment

Jennifer Cousineau MSCP, LPCI, NCC

Medically reviewed by

Jennifer Cousineau MSCP, LPCI, NCC

March 5, 2019

Benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed to treat panic attacks, seizures, muscle spasms, and anxiety. They are classified as depressant, commonly referred to as tranquilizers.

What Are Benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines (commonly referred to as ‘benzos’) belong to a class of prescription medications that are used to treat some mental and physical health problems. They work in the body as a central nervous system (CNS) depressant and are prescribed for epilepsy, insomnia, severe anxiety, issues with muscle spasms, and symptoms associated with alcohol withdrawal.

There are several different types of benzodiazepines, but the most commonly prescribed benzos include diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax), clonazepam (Klonopin), lorazepam (Ativan), and chlordiazepoxide (Librium).

Benzodiazepines have a high risk of addiction, and long-term cognitive effects, so they are recommended for short-term use. Because of these factors, benzodiazepines are highly regulated by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and considered a Schedule IV drug under the Controlled Substance Act.

Benzodiazepines are available in pill and liquid form. Most prescriptions benzos are in pill form, while the liquid form of diazepam is used as an intravenous (IV) liquid in hospital settings. People have been known to sell their prescriptions on the street, giving them nicknames like bars, footballs, blues, zannies, and tranks.

Effects Of Benzodiazepine Abuse

Abusing benzodiazepines increases the risk of the following side effects:

  • drowsiness
  • vision problems
  • slurred speech
  • confusion
  • impaired memory
  • coordination problems
  • vertigo
  • depression
  • tremors
  • diarrhea
  • lack of appetite
  • nausea
  • vomiting

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Higher doses of benzodiazepines for prolonged time periods can result in extreme drowsiness, mood swing, euphoria, decreased reflexes, and erratic behaviors. Benzos are stored in fat tissues, and over time, that accumulation usually results in over-sedation, can contribute to overdose.

Signs of benzodiazepine over-sedation include:

  • extreme confusion
  • severe coordination issues
  • significantly impaired judgement
  • overall disorientation

Any time a person takes benzodiazepines in a way that is not prescribed to them, that is substance abuse. This abuse can easily shift to dependence, and eventual addiction. There are significant health risks associated with benzodiazepine dependence and addiction.

The abuse of benzodiazepines can lead to addiction, and, once addicted, a person may be exposed to the dangers and risks associated with benzodiazepines.

Benzodiazepine Overdose

The symptoms of benzodiazepine over-sedation may be present during a benzodiazepine overdose, as well as the following symptoms:

  • trouble breathing
  • bluish fingernails or lips
  • weakness
  • uncoordinated muscles
  • stupor
  • tremors
  • seizures
  • coma
  • death

If someone you know has any of the signs of over-sedation or overdose, seek medical attention immediately. Especially if you think they may have ingested other substances, like opioids or alcohol. Many fatal overdoses involve a combination of benzodiazepines and other drugs.

Benzodiazepine Addiction And Dependence

People who take benzodiazepines for longer than two to six weeks run the risk of becoming dependent on them. This means that in order to feel ‘normal’ the person would need to continue to take benzodiazepines. This can quickly escalate into an addiction, and the person could become hyper-focused on finding more benzos to feel like themselves.

Benzodiazepines change the neurochemistry of the brain, which is why they are so addictive. As the drug accumulates in the body, the risk for dependence and addiction also increase. Many people who are prescribed benzos are not aware of the risk associated with long-term use, and are unaware of their dependence until they try to stop.

Signs of benzodiazepine addiction:

  • doctor shopping (to maintain a supply of benzos)
  • asking others for their medication
  • buying benzos illegally
  • passing out or blacking out
  • inability to stop using despite wanting to
  • mood swings
  • increased risk-taking behaviors
  • withdrawal symptoms
  • severely impaired coordination
  • mixing benzodiazepines with other drugs

Benzodiazepine Withdrawal

The withdrawal symptoms associated with benzodiazepines are dangerous and can be fatal. This is why it is always important to taper down the dosage under the supervision of a medical professional. Usually, a person can attend a detoxification program to help them through the withdrawal from benzodiazepines.

Some of the risk factors associated with benzo withdrawal include seizures, respiratory failure, coma, and even death. It is important to make sure to have appropriate care when stopping benzodiazepines.

Statistics On Benzodiazepines

  • Approximately 30% of opioid overdoses involve benzodiazepines
  • Over 8,000 people died from benzodiazepine overdose in 2015
  • More than 50 million prescriptions for benzodiazepines are written per year
  • According to a study in 2018, benzodiazepine use increases approximately 26% each year

Benzodiazepine Addiction Treatment

Benzodiazepine abuse, addiction, and dependence should be taken very seriously. Especially due to the potentially fatal effects of benzo withdrawal. There are treatment options available for anyone struggling with benzodiazepine addiction or dependence. These facilities understand that often times the resulting addiction was not intentional, and addressing the dependence is the first step toward sobriety. Contact one of our treatment specialists today to find out more.

Journal of Psychopharmacology - Benzodiazepines: Risks and benefits. A reconsideration

Drug Enforcement Administration - Benzodiazepines

Medline Plus - Diazepam Overdose

National Library of Medicine - Analysis of changes in trends in the consumption rate of benzodiazepines and benzodiazepine-related drugs

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