What are benzodiazepines used for?

Benzodiazepines are a class of psychoactive drugs that are currently approved to be prescribed to treat insomnia, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, epilepsy and panic disorder. There is also certain benzodiazepine uses in other cases like restless leg syndrome, tic disorders, muscle spasms, bipolar disorder and sleep disorders. Benzodiazepines can also be used as medication-assisted treatment to manage the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.

Common types of benzodiazepines include:

  • Xanax (alprazolam)
  • Valium (diazepam)
  • Klonopin (clonazepam)
  • Lunesta (eszopiclone)
  • Librium (chlordiazepoxide)
  • Ambien (zolpidem)
  • Restoril (temazepam)
  • Ativan (lorazepam)

What are the benefits of using benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines are among the most prescribed medications in the world because of their demonstrated effectiveness at treating serious physical and mental disorders. They act as a sedative by enhancing the effect of GABA in the brain, the inhibitory neurotransmitter that has a calming effect on many brain functions. Benzodiazepines are effective at treating generalized anxiety disorder, for example, because they calm the overstimulation in the brain which reduces the symptoms of anxiety and lowers the frequency of anxiety attacks. Benzodiazepines are typically prescribed as a short-term solution to conditions like severe anxiety and insomnia and are used in conjunction with other treatment modalities like psychotherapy or cognitive behavioral therapy.

Are there any risks associated with using benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines are classified as a Schedule IV controlled substance per the Federal Controlled Substances Act, meaning they have a moderate risk of abuse but have authorized uses as medical treatments. The Food and Drug Administration also recently required updates to the Boxed Warning on all benzodiazepines to include the risks of abuse, misuse, addiction, physical dependence and withdrawal.

Despite their medical benefits, benzodiazepines are considered to be extremely addictive substances. This is due in part to the body’s ability to develop a tolerance to the medication within a matter of days, which leads to the prescribed dosage being frequently increased or the individual taking more than their prescribed amount in order to feel the therapeutic effects. As a result, many practitioners will only prescribe benzodiazepines as a short-term solution – over the course of a few weeks or months – and will then recommend alternative pharmacological and psychotherapeutic treatments.

One of the large risks benzodiazepines inherently carry, like any other substance, is that they can fall into the hands of individuals who do not have a prescription for them; even for individuals with prescriptions, benzodiazepines are very susceptible to being abused because of their pharmacological makeup. Correlations have been drawn between the abuse of benzodiazepines and the abuse of opioids – again, both in instances of prescriptions and non-prescription. Benzodiazepines and opioids both have sedative effects, making the two substances dangerous to use together as the combination can lead to slowed breathing and impaired cognitive function. In 2019, in 16% of opioid-related overdose deaths, benzodiazepines were also found to be present in the body. Because of their similar therapeutic effects, individuals struggling with addiction to benzodiazepines may eventually turn to opioids if benzodiazepines become inaccessible.

Addiction to benzodiazepines – and in particular, alprazolam or Xanax – must be carefully treated. When an individual develops an addiction to benzodiazepines, their central nervous system becomes accustomed to a certain amount of the drug in order to function properly. A sudden cessation of that dosage will cause serious withdrawal symptoms, including:

  • Seizures
  • Tremors
  • Muscle cramps
  • Agitation
  • Increased anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Sweating
  • Heart palpitations
  • Hallucinations
  • Drowsiness
  • Slurred speech
  • Blurred vision
  • Psychosis
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Stomach cramps
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Insomnia
  • Derealization
  • Psychosis
  • Coma

Even when an individual has become addicted to benzodiazepines, they must taper their dosage – ideally under the supervision of medical staff who can respond in case of emergency – so as to slowly wean themselves off of the drug and refrain from shocking the body.

In addition to their risk of being abused, benzodiazepines can potentially cause adverse side effects even when the medication is being used as instructed. These can include depression, impaired balance and coordination, confusion, drowsiness, dizziness, unsteadiness, weakness and even increased anxiety.

When a controlled substance like a benzodiazepine is prescribed, the physician has decided that the potential benefits of the medication outweigh its potential risks. Not everyone who has prescribed a benzodiazepine will become addicted to it, but the risk must be acknowledged and prevention education must be more prevalent.

Silver Ridge Recovery is dedicated to providing compassionate, holistic drug and alcohol addiction treatment. We believe recovery can only be achieved by caring for your mind, body, and spirit. Reach out today at 855-945-7788 if you or someone you love is struggling with addiction to benzodiazepines.