Benzodiazepine abuse has been an ongoing epidemic in the United States, and continues to present dangerous threats, especially when people abuse benzodiazepines with other drugs.
What Are Benzodiazepines?
Benzodiazepines are classified as sedative drugs that are central nervous system (CNS) depressants. Benzodiazepines are most commonly prescribed for the treatment of insomnia, anxiety-related disorders, and epilepsy.
Working to enhance the effects of the GABA (Gamma aminobutyric acid) neurotransmitter, the effects of benzodiazepines are extremely sedative and relaxing. Some of the most commonly used benzodiazepines include the following:
Benzodiazepines are typically not intended for long-term and chronic use, however, they are frequently abused by people, especially in conjunction with other drugs to enhance their effects. Most benzodiazepines vary in their strength and length of action, but all have the same effects on a user, most of which are more intense when used non-medically. Some of the most common effects of benzodiazepines include the following:
- Muscle relaxation and weakness
- Trouble concentrating
- Memory loss
- Lack of coordination
- Lowered inhibitions
- Slurred speech
- Loss of consciousness
- Lowered blood pressure
- Slowed heart beat
- Slowed breathing
Any use of benzodiazepines that is different from the directions on a prescription constitutes abuse, and taking any prescription that has been prescribed to someone else is also an illegal form of abuse of that drug.
How Are Benzodiazepines Abused?
Typically benzodiazepines are not dangerous on their own, and do not usually result in fatal overdose without the presence of other drugs. There are two categories of drugs with which benzodiazepines are most frequently abused.
- Depressant drugs
- Stimulant drugs
Benzodiazepine Abuse With Depressant Drugs
Aside from benzodiazepines, other depressant drugs include alcohol, heroin, barbiturates, and painkillers. Most commonly mixed with these drugs, benzodiazepine abuse can lead to dangerous and fatal complications that mostly result in respiratory failure and death.
In fact, according to New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, there was 139% national increase in benzodiazepine-related overdose deaths from 2004-2010. The report goes on to identify that overdose death from benzodiazepines alone is rare, and most common when these drugs are used in combination with heroin or opiod analgesics (painkillers).
Benzodiazepine abuse is common because many people who abuse other depressant drugs seek a more intense high or sense of sedation. Benzodiazepine abuse in conjunction with abuse of painkillers and/or heroin can quickly lead to fatal overdose, and according to the NYC report, the most commonly identified benzodiazepine in these overdose deaths is Xanax. This is likely because Xanax is one of the most potent and short-acting benzodiazepines available, and its effects are more intense than most other benzodiazepines of abuse.
In addition to heroin and painkillers, benzodiazepines are also commonly abused with alcohol. One of the most common occurrences among those who struggle with alcohol abuse and alcoholism is sleep disturbances and anxiety, both of which benzodiazepines can be indicated to treat. The result is often benzodiazepine abuse along with alcohol, which is also a CNS depressant. The combination of these two drugs in abuse leads to dangerous consequences, one of which is respiratory failure.
Benzodiazepine Abuse and Stimulant Drugs
Another way in which benzodiazepine abuse is common when people use these drugs to come down from the high of stimulant drugs like cocaine, crack, meth, and ecstasy. Many people who abuse these stimulant drugs may do so for the purpose of being able to party or stay awake all night, or engage in binge drug use for an extended period of time.
When someone is high on stimulants, but wants to be able to go to sleep, or balance him or herself to appear more “normal”, a common practice is to abuse benzodiazepines in order to achieve the desired result.
The occurrences of overdose and serious complications with these mixtures of benzodiazepine abuse are rare. However, there is a strong potential for the stimulant drug to wear off prior to the peak action of the benzodiazepine taken, which can lead serious behavioral and health consequences.
Additional Dangers of Benzodiazepine Abuse
Although benzodiazepine abuse most commonly occurs with other drugs, the effects of benzodiazepines alone can lead to dangerous situations for the user and those around that person. Some of the hazardous circumstances that have been common among those who misuse benzodiazepines and/or use them in excess are as follows:
- Driving While Under the Influence
When an individual is under the influence of benzodiazepines, he or is she is in a compromised state of mind, and cannot be alert enough to drive safely, as reaction time is severely slowed. Driving while under the influence of benzodiazepines is very dangerous and can lead to fatal vehicular accidents.
- Engaging in Physical Activity
Benzodiazepines are strong muscle relaxants and when abused, can lead to muscle weakness, which is partially responsible for the lack of coordination experienced by most engage in benzodiazepine abuse. Abusing these drugs and then attempting to exercise, walk for moderate to long distances, or even caring for minors can lead to serious personal injury.
- Unsafe Sexual Activity
A common effect of benzodiazepine abuse is lowered inhibition. Like alcohol intoxication, abuse of benzodiazepines often leads to risky behavior, including sexual activity in which an individual may not otherwise participate. Examples can be unprotected sex, public sexual encounters, and/or anonymous sexual encounters.
Benzodiazepines can be effective medication for legitimate medical need, however benzodiazepine abuse is dangerous and can lead to life threatening situations. While under the influence of these powerful psychoactive drugs, an individual is not aware of his or her condition, and is unlikely to recognize the danger of any particular situation he/she may encounter.
Can Benzodiazepine Abuse Lead to Addiction?
Benzodiazepines are listed as a schedule IV drug by the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), which means that they are considered to have a low potential for abuse. However, chronic and prolonged use and abuse of these drugs does produce physical dependence. When benzodiazepines are used or abused for a period of as little as six weeks, continuously, physical dependence can develop, which can create serious withdrawal symptoms if the drugs are abruptly discontinued.
Although most people who take benzodiazepines for legitimate medical reasons are not abusing the drugs, they are most commonly prescribed on an “as needed” basis, and not to be taken regularly or around the clock. Additionally, most benzodiazepines are not intended to be used for a prolonged period of time.
However, those who abuse benzodiazepines on a regular basis (whether in conjunction with other drugs or not), are at a severely increased risk of physical dependence and addiction.
Once physically dependent on benzodiazepines, there is a wide variety of symptoms that may occur when their use is discontinued, and it is recommended that no one attempt to abruptly stop taking these drugs. Instead, the medical recommendation is for dosages of benzodiazepines to be slowly tapered down to the point at which an individual can be safely withdrawn. The reason for this is because benzodiazepines are some of the few drugs that may produce life threatening seizures when discontinued in chronic users. Some of the most common benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms include:
- Muscle soreness and tension
- Severe anxiety
- Severe agitation
- Loss of appetite
- Hand tremor
- Panic attacks
- Perceptual distortions
- Heart palpitations
- Psychotic reaction (in severe cases of benzodiazepine abuse)
Withdrawing from benzodiazepines can be arduous and extremely uncomfortable, as the physical and psychological effects take a disturbing toll on users. The severity of benzodiazepine withdrawal varies, depending on several factors, which include:
- duration and frequency of benzodiazepine use/abuse
- pre-existing psychological conditions, such as bipolar disorder, mania, depression, anxiety disorders, etc.
- the type of benzodiazepine(s) used/abused (potent, short acting, weak, long acting)
- development of addiction to benzodiazepines
If an individual has been responsibly using benzodiazepines as directed by his or her doctor, and use has bee prolonged for a number of years, the withdrawal may still be very unpleasant and potentially dangerous without medical supervision. Likewise, an individual who has been engaging in benzodiazepine abuse for a sustained period of time is more likely to be addicted to these drugs and is susceptible to the same discomfort and danger of an unsupervised withdrawal.
How to Withdraw From Benzodiazepines
Before making any attempt to cease or cut down on benzodiazepine use, it is important to seek medical consultation and discuss use, frequency, and medical conditions with a trained physician. After doing this, a doctor can assist in determining the best course of action to safely discontinue use.
In the case of an individual who is addicted to benzodiazepines and using them recklessly and excessively, more immediate attention is required, and the best solution is to seek the assistance of a detox facility that is equipped for benzodiazepine detox.
Benzodiazepine detox consists of the same protocol that may be directed by a physician, however the process is completed in a detox facility. The most notable difference between a cooperative withdrawal with a doctor and a benzodiazepine detox in a facility is the control an individual has to take his or her dosages during the taper.
In a detox facility, the dosages are generally tapered according to each person’s ability to endure the withdrawal symptoms as they occur and gradually lessen, but all medications are administered by clinicians and facility staff. This is the most efficient and safest way to complete benzodiazepine detox for an individual who has a history of benzodiazepine abuse.
It is not uncommon for any addicted individual in withdrawal to abandon efforts to detox, when left to his or her own devices. The withdrawal symptoms associated with benzodiazepines and all other drugs of abuse are grueling, and any individual would seek relief in whatever way he or she can. For addicts, the solution to all problems is to take drugs, namely their drug of choice. The most dangerous aspect of benzodiazepine withdrawal is an addict taking too much in an effort to find relief from symptoms. It is for this reason, detox facilities are extraordinarily beneficial.
Understanding the potential dangers of withdrawing after benzodiazepine abuse, detox facilities do not abruptly cease the use of these drugs, but follow a strict protocol which varies, but has a general guideline of the following:
- switch the user to an equivalent dosage of a long-acting (typically less potent) benzodiazepine
- over the course of the following several days, gradually reduce the dosage, per the individual’s response to the reduction
- while constantly monitoring vital measurements and temperance, administer additional medications for management of symptoms, as necessary
- completely withdraw the individual from benzodiazepines at such a time when it is safe to do so (after the peak symptoms have faded, and risk of seizure is no longer imminent)
In some cases of severe benzodiazepine abuse, this process may take several weeks, but the typical time it takes to complete a benzodiazepine detox is 10-14 days.
Benzodiazepine abuse is dangerous and can lead to deadly consequences, especially when these drugs are mixed with other depressant drugs. There is no way to safely abuse benzodiazepines, as different people have different responses to the drug. Even those who have been using benzodiazepines responsibly should always take extreme caution in discontinuing use, and consult a physician.
If you, or someone you know is engaging in benzodiazepine abuse, it is imperative to get help immediately. The growing rates of deadly overdose are an ominous sign of the dangers of this epidemic. A safe and comfortable benzodiazepine detox is available in dozens of detox facilities throughout the nation. All that is necessary is to make a phone call right now, to find help. Trained and compassionate counselors are standing by now to speak with you about options and finding a path to recovery from benzodiazepine abuse. Benzodiazepine abuse can stop, but it is important to get help so it is done safely, and with the proper support to ensure the prevention of further abuse. Call us now, and we will help you to determine the nature of your situation, and find the solution that best addresses the needs and preferences to find sobriety and recovery from benzodiazepine abuse.