The opioid crisis may be making headlines, but prescription painkillers are far from the only medication with the potential for abuse.
Prescriptions for benzodiazepines are rising and many experts fear this could spur a new addiction epidemic.
Benzodiazepines, often referred to as benzos, are a class of medications most commonly prescribed to treat anxiety. However, they can also be used to treat insomnia, seizures, or alcohol withdrawal.
There are more than 2,000 different benzodiazepines on the market worldwide. The most common benzos include:
Benzo prescriptions have risen sharply in recent years. One study found that the number of adults filling a benzodiazepine prescription increased by 67 percent from 1996 to 2013. Medicaid spending on benzodiazepines increased by nearly $40 million from 1991 to 2009, even though price of benzodiazepines generally fell during this time frame.
This surge in prescriptions has had serious consequences. Data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse indicates there were 8,791 benzos-related overdose deaths in 2015—almost eight times the level of fatal overdoses in 1999.
An Accidental Addiction
Like many of the individuals who’ve become addicted to prescription opioids, people who are abusing benzos often start out with a legal prescription. They are given the medication to treat specific medical symptoms, but may not fully understand the potential for addiction.
Many people are surprised to learn that tolerance to benzos can occur in just six months of taking the medication exactly as prescribed. At least 44% of users will eventually become physically dependent on the drug.
Prolonged use of benzodiazepines can create permanent cognitive impairment. Long term users can forget things they once could easily recall or struggle to perform tasks that were previously second nature. Some studies have also suggested that long term use of benzos increases a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease.
Guidelines for the safe use of benzos include:
- Antidepressants or cognitive behavioral therapy should be used before resorting to benzos.
Benzos should only be taken on a short-term or intermittent basis. They are not suitable for long term use.
- Quitting cold turkey can trigger deadly seizures. The medication must be tapered under a doctor’s supervision.
- Never mix benzos with other medications. One area of particular concern is combining benzos with opioids. Taking both types of medications together increases the risk of overdose fourfold.
Signs of Benzos Addiction
Substance use disorders can affect people of all ages, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds. However, unemployment, low socioeconomic status, peer pressure, and a family history of substance abuse have been specifically linked to higher rates of benzos abuse.
Potential signs of an addiction to benzodiazepines include:
- An increased tolerance that requires higher doses to achieve the same sedative effects
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms such as memory loss, trouble eating, heart palpitations, headache, muscle pain, and severe fatigue when not taking the medication
- Having trouble with school or work performance
- Changes in mood or behavior affecting relationships with family and friends
- Ordering medications online or shopping around for prescriptions at multiple doctors
- Stealing medication or money to buy black market pills from others
- Mixing benzos with other drugs
- Trying to change usage patterns, but being unable to do so
- Becoming angry and defensive when confronted by others about drug use
Signs of Overdose
When any addictive substance is being misused, overdose is a possibility. Signs of a potential benzos overdose include:
- Slurred speech
- Blurred vision
- Lack of coordination
- Trouble breathing
An overdose is a medical emergency. If you think someone has taken an overdose of benzos, call 911 for assistance. If you can find the pill containers, provide them to the hospital staff so they can establish exactly what medications have been taken.
If you or someone you love is struggling with an addiction to benzos, help is available. Addiction is not a moral failing caused by a lack of willpower. It’s a biologically-based brain disorder that requires professional care.
Residential addiction treatment typically begins with a medically supervised detoxification. A team of trained professionals monitors the client’s vital signs and provide emotional support to ensure comfort and safety during this process.
Following detox, intensive counseling in both individual and group therapy helps clients develop the coping skills necessary to promote long-term sobriety. It is very common for people with substance use disorders to have a co-occurring mental health condition. If the individual began taking benzos to treat anxiety, finding other ways to deal with this condition is essential. Ignoring the challenges caused by anxiety places the person at a high risk of relapse.
Following residential treatment, clients may receive intensive outpatient care and participate in 12-step meetings. Although substance use disorders can’t be “cured” in the traditional sense, access to a full continuum of care allows individuals struggling with addiction to live happy and productive lives.