Benzodiazepines are the most commonly prescribed depressants in the United States. They work by increasing the effectiveness of a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which suppresses the activity of nerves and produces sedative, hypnotic, and anticonvulsant effects.
Valium (generic name diazepam), Xanax (alprazolam), Klonopin (clonazepam), Ativan (lorazepam), Restoril (temazepam), and Halcion (triazolam) are the most popular benzodiazepines.
The History of Benzodiazepines
Benzodiazepines are no new trend – they were first discovered (accidentally) by a chemist named Leo Sternbach in 1955. Hoffman-La Roche, the company that Sternbach worked for, made benzodiazepines available to the public in 1960. They became more and more popular as the decade progressed.
In fact, benzodiazepines were so popular during this period that they even became the subject of the hit 1966 Rolling Stones single, “Mother’s Little Helper.” The “little yellow pill” Mick Jagger is referring to is Valium.
In 1977 (and in many years following), benzodiazepine medications were more prescribed than any drug class in the world.
Although over 2,000 benzodiazepines have been developed, only 15 have been approved by the FDA for use in the US. They’re still absurdly popular – 2013 was the first year that Medicare started covering benzodiazepines, and it paid for nearly 40 million prescriptions that year. This was more prescriptions than Medicare covered for any other class of drug, and many tens of millions more benzodiazepine prescriptions were paid for that year by the uninsured and those insured privately.
What Medical Conditions do Benzodiazepines Treat?
- Panic disorder
- Anxiety disorder
- Muscle spasms
- Alcohol withdrawal
Benzodiazepines are also used to calm patients down before procedures they’re nervous about, such as dental work and surgery.
What are the Side Effects of Benzodiazepines?
- Dry mouth
Abuse and Addiction
“These (pills) relax people and put them to sleep, but they also cause physical dependence. It’s not as dramatic a story as heroin or cocaine, but if you totaled all the damage, benzos would be comparable.”
Dr. Doug Coleman, Canadian Physician
In addition to the side effects listed above, there’s also the issue of benzodiazepine dependence and addiction. Benzodiazepines are highly habit-forming, and abuse of these drugs leads to many hospitalizations and deaths.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2013 there were 43,982 drug overdose deaths in the United States, and 22,767 (51.8%) of them were related to prescription drugs.
When people think of deaths related to prescription drugs, their minds likely go first to opiate painkillers. Indeed, opiates had a role in the majority of these deaths, as 16,235 of the 22,767 (71.3%) prescription drug overdose deaths in 2013 did involve opiates.
Benzodiazepines don’t have quite the dangerous reputation that opiates do, but they also do much harm. Benzodiazepines were involved in 6,973 of the 22,767 (30.6%) prescription drug overdose deaths in 2013. Before you call us out on the math for this one by pointing out that 71.3% + 30.6% is more than 100%, please note that’s the case because many overdose deaths involved a combination of opiates and benzodiazepines, as well as other drugs.
Benzodiazepines are also found in many patients who end up in the emergency departments of hospitals after abusing prescription drugs.
Trinity Behavioral Health is State Licensed by the Department of Health Care Services
Benzodiazepine Withdrawal Syndrome
“I estimate about 20-30% of people who are on a benzodiazepine like diazepam have trouble coming off and of those about a third have very distressing symptoms… they start to get some very bizarre symptoms which we technically call hypersensitivity… sounds appear loud and lights appear bright, so they’re wearing sunglasses indoors and they also have a symptom whereby they feel very unsteady and they will walk round the room holding on to the walls – and they really are then in a bad withdrawal state.”
Dr. Malcolm H Lader, Professor of Clinical Psychopharmacology, University of London
In the previous section we highlighted how thousands of people in the U.S. die every year from benzodiazepine-related prescription drug overdoses. That stat shows why it’s so important for anyone addicted to benzodiazepines to stop abusing these drugs as soon as they possibly can.
But that’s easier said than done. When someone develops a dependence to benzodiazepines and then tries to cut themselves off from these drugs, the resulting withdrawal symptoms can range from extremely uncomfortable to fatal.
What are the Withdrawal Symptoms of Benzodiazepines?
- Heightened anxiety
- Confusion and difficulty concentrating
- Hand tremors
- Weight loss
These symptoms are notoriously erratic – they come and go and vary in severity hour to hour, day to day, and week to week.
Severe and untreated cases of benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome result in even worse symptoms, including delirium tremens (DTs), homicidal and suicidal ideation, and catatonia which may lead to death.
To minimize these symptoms of benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome, both minor and severe, professional care is a necessity.
“Doctors who prescribe benzodiazepines continuously are courting disaster. What we need to realize is that benzodiazepines are addictive… It is a drug that takes a much longer detox procedure than almost anything else”
– Dr. Garth McIver, Addiction Specialist
Trinity Behavorial Health provides the care that you or your loved one needs to successfully detox from benzodiazepines safely.
Unlike many treatment centers that treat a large patient base at any one time, our facility provides the patient-focused, individualized care that is necessary for truly successful benzodiazepine detox and relapse prevention therapy to take place.
Depending on which particular benzodiazepine medication the patient was using and how long it takes to leave their system, a patient will typically begin to experience the first withdrawal symptoms of anxiety and insomnia in the first 6 – 12 hours after they stop taking short-acting benzodiazepines (Xanax, Ativan, etc.).
In the next few days, the symptoms often get worse. Anxiety and insomnia heighten. General, intense discomfort is accompanied by nausea, sweating, and an increased heart and breathing rate. For those who stopped taking long-acting benzodiazepines (Valium, Klonopin, etc.), this is when the withdrawal symptoms set in.
A week after a patient stops taking short-acting benzodiazepines, the withdrawal symptoms begin to fade. For those who stopped taking long-acting benzodiazepines, this is when withdrawal symptoms peak.
Patients who were using benzodiazepines heavily may experience withdrawal symptoms after 15 days – this is known as protracted withdrawal syndrome.
Quitting benzodiazepines cold turkey without any medical supervision is extremely dangerous, as it could lead to seizures and violent behavior including suicide.
Detox should be administered by a trained physician and should be safe and comfortable. The best way is to slowly ween the patient off the drug in question and possibly use other medications to aid in the detox procedure.
Our doctors are board-certified in addiction treatment and experts in safe and comfortable detox protocols. While detox is usually the first, and most important step of addiction treatment, we are also uniquely qualified to continue with treatment after the detox process has been safely completed.