Benzodiazepine Addiction: Risks, Treatment, and Recovery

Benzodiazepines, commonly known as benzos, first developed in the 1950s, have become both a valuable tool and a source of concern in modern medicine. Initially celebrated for their ability to treat anxiety, insomnia, and seizures, these drugs soon revealed a darker side. As their use became widespread in the 1960s and 70s, reports of misuse and dependence began to surface.

 

Despite their benefits, benzos can be highly addictive. Even when taken as prescribed, dependence can develop, causing withdrawal symptoms if stopped. This raised concerns in the medical community about balancing their benefits and risks.

 

As a result, doctors and researchers began to scrutinize the use of benzos more closely. Guidelines and regulations were introduced to limit their long-term use and to prevent addiction. 

 

In this article, we’ll dive into the world of benzodiazepines, looking at how they work, the different types available, and the potential dangers they pose.

Benzodiazepine Addiction Overview

What Are Benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines are a class of sedative medications that slow down the central nervous system, causing sedation, muscle relaxation, and reduced anxiety. They are commonly used to treat conditions like anxiety, panic disorders, muscle spasms, and seizures. Benzos are also used in managing alcohol withdrawal.

 

Due to their versatility, benzodiazepines were used by over 25 million people in the United States in the past year, according to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

 

Despite their therapeutic benefits, benzos carry a risk of addiction. Doctors usually limit their use to a few weeks or less to prevent dependence and misuse.

 

However, misuse of benzodiazepines is a significant issue. In 2021, about 3.9 million people misused prescription benzos. Misuse includes taking someone else’s medication, using the drugs to get high, or consuming them in higher doses than prescribed. Often, people who misuse benzos do so alongside other substances to enhance the euphoric effects or to mitigate the adverse effects of other drugs.

 

Additionally, some benzodiazepines are misused as “date rape” drugs because they can impair a person’s ability to resist sexual aggression or assault.

 

This is why, in the United States, benzodiazepines are classified as Schedule IV controlled substances under the Controlled Substances Act.

 

There are various types of benzodiazepines, each prescribed for different conditions based on their specific effects. For example, someone experiencing panic attacks or anxiety might be prescribed Xanax (alprazolam) or Valium (diazepam). On the other hand, a person struggling with insomnia could be prescribed Ativan (lorazepam). Though all these medications are benzodiazepines, they affect different subtypes of GABA-A receptors, leading to slightly different outcomes.

 

Here are some common benzodiazepines and their uses:

 

    • Alprazolam (Niravam, Xanax, Xanax XR): Used for anxiety and panic disorders.
    • Chlordiazepoxide (Librax): Prescribed for anxiety and alcohol withdrawal.
    • Clonazepam (Klonopin): Used for seizures, panic disorders, and nerve pain.
    • Diazepam (Valium): Treats anxiety, sedation, alcohol withdrawal, muscle spasms, and seizures.
    • Lorazepam (Ativan): Used for anxiety, insomnia, seizures, and sedation.
    • Midazolam (Versed): Primarily used for sedation and seizures.
    • Oxazepam (Serax): Prescribed for anxiety and alcohol withdrawal.
    • Temazepam (Restoril): Used for insomnia.

 

Understanding the different types of benzodiazepines and their specific uses is crucial for their safe use. Let’s now look at the effects of these medications.

Effects of Benzodiazepines

Short-Term Effects

Benzodiazepines can cause a range of short-term side effects. The most common ones include:

    • Dizziness
    • Confusion
    • Drowsiness
    • Constipation
    • Memory loss
    • Slurred speech
    • Muscle weakness
    • Loss of coordination and balance

Some people may also experience more severe effects, such as:

    • Delusions
    • Hallucinations
    • Skin reactions
    • Sudden anxiety
    • Euphoria (a feeling of well-being)
    • Restlessness and agitation
    • Irritability and aggressiveness

Understanding these potential side effects is important for anyone taking benzodiazepines to be aware of how the medication might affect them in the short term.

Long-Term Effects

The long-term effects of benzodiazepines can include:

 

    • Physical dependence
    • Problems with learning or concentrating

 

If you’re prescribed benzodiazepines, it’s essential to talk to your healthcare provider about a plan to minimize these risks. Using benzodiazepines for longer than prescribed increases the chances of developing a substance use disorder and dependence. 

Benzodiazepine Abuse

Signs of Benzo Abuse

When benzodiazepines are not used as prescribed by a physician, abuse can manifest in various signs and symptoms. These symptoms depend on the length of abuse and the amount consumed. The most common symptoms of benzodiazepine abuse include:

 

Behavioral Symptoms:

 

    • Drug-seeking behaviors
    • Doctor shopping or visiting multiple doctors to obtain more prescriptions
    • Taking benzodiazepines in larger doses or for longer periods than intended
    • Forging prescriptions
    • Increasing desire to be left alone
    • Inability to meet responsibilities at work, school, or home

 

Physical Symptoms:

 

    • Increased respiratory infections
    • Physical dependence
    • Double vision
    • Muscle weakness
    • Vertigo
    • Headaches
    • Changes in eating and sleeping patterns

 

Cognitive Symptoms:

 

    • Memory impairment
    • Anterograde amnesia
    • Increased confusion
    • Slowed thinking
    • Slowed reaction time

 

Psychosocial Symptoms:

 

    • Increased anxiety
    • Irritability and hostility
    • Depression
    • Mood swings

 

Recognizing these signs can be crucial for identifying benzo abuse and seeking help early. If you or someone you know exhibits these symptoms, it may be time to consult a healthcare professional for guidance and support.

Benzodiazepine Overdose

Identifying benzodiazepine overdose symptoms is vital for those at risk and for anyone who may need to assist someone in distress. Overdose symptoms can manifest suddenly and vary in severity. Important symptoms to be aware of include:

    • Extreme drowsiness or inability to stay awake
    • Confusion and cognitive impairment
    • Slurred speech and difficulty speaking
    • Unsteady or impaired coordination
    • Muscle weakness
    • Shallow or slow breathing
    • Blurred or double vision
    • Dilated pupils
    • Rapid heartbeat or irregular pulse
    • Profuse sweating
    • Low blood pressure
    • Nausea and vomiting
    • Seizures
    • Loss of consciousness

If you or someone you know experiences these symptoms after taking benzodiazepines, seek immediate medical help.

What to Do if You Think You Are Overdosing on Benzos

If you suspect a benzodiazepine overdose, act quickly:

 

    • Call 911: Immediately contact emergency services. Inform the operator about the suspected overdose and provide your location. Paramedics can offer life-saving treatment and transport the person to the hospital.
    • Stay with the person: Monitor their condition and offer reassurance. Keep them awake, alert, and sitting up if possible. If they can’t sit up, lay them on their side in the recovery position.
    • Avoid waiting it out: Don’t try to counteract the overdose on your own. Avoid home remedies like forcing the person to vomit, giving them coffee, or letting them sleep it off. These can be dangerous.

 

Acting quickly can significantly improve the outcome of an overdose. Always seek professional medical help rather than attempting self-treatment.

Benzodiazepine Withdrawal

If a person who is physically dependent on benzodiazepines abruptly stops taking them or dramatically reduces the dose, withdrawal symptoms are likely to occur. These symptoms can begin just a few hours after the last dose and may include:

    • Insomnia
    • Anxiety
    • Agitation
    • Hallucinations
    • Severe cravings
      • Racing pulse and increased blood pressure
      • Increased body temperature and sweating
      • Overactive reflexes
      • Shakiness or tremors
      • Seizures

Benzodiazepine withdrawal can be very uncomfortable and potentially dangerous. If you or someone you know is experiencing these symptoms, it is important to seek medical advice. Gradual tapering under medical supervision is often recommended to minimize withdrawal effects and ensure safety.

Benzo Addiction Withdrawal Management and Treatment

If you or a loved one is misusing benzodiazepines, there are many treatment options available to suit your unique needs. The road to recovery often starts with detox and withdrawal management. It’s not recommended to attempt benzodiazepine withdrawal without medical supervision. Detox facility staff will monitor withdrawal symptoms around the clock, administering medications to ensure safety and comfort.

 

Detox is a crucial first step in recovery from benzodiazepine addiction. However, detox alone may not fully address the behavioral, psychological, and social issues associated with addiction. Comprehensive substance use disorder treatment should follow detox.

 

Treatment options include:

 

Inpatient: Patients stay at a facility where they receive intensive group and individual therapy sessions. Staff are available around the clock to offer support. This setting is ideal for people with additional physical or mental health issues and those struggling to stop using benzodiazepines and other substances.

 

Outpatient: Patients attend scheduled group and individual counseling sessions while living at home. This type of care is best for those with less severe mental or medical health issues and strong support systems in their home environment.

 

Aftercare: Providing ongoing support after inpatient and outpatient programs, aftercare can include sober housing, alumni programs, support groups, self-help meetings, and private therapy. Aftercare helps reduce the risk of relapse and supports the transition to independent living without substance use.

 

Therapy Techniques:

 

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Helps change unhelpful thoughts, actions, and beliefs; develop better stress management skills; identify high-risk situations; and create a plan to avoid relapse.

 

Contingency Management (CM): Uses positive reinforcement by rewarding desirable behaviors, such as attending treatment and staying sober, with small rewards.

 

Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET): Helps manage feelings of ambivalence by exploring feelings and identifying pros and cons of change, increasing internal motivation to create positive changes.

 

By combining these treatment options and therapy techniques, individuals struggling with benzodiazepine addiction can find the support they need for a successful recovery.

Seeking Help

If you or a loved one is struggling with benzodiazepine misuse or addiction, there are many treatment options available to support your recovery. Addiction treatment programs offer tailored treatment plans to fit your needs, with facilities across the United States providing a range of services from detox and inpatient treatment to outpatient care and aftercare. Reach out today and start your journey to a healthier, drug-free life.

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