Benzodiazepines, or benzos, are psychoactive drugs that have numerous brand names. They’re prescribed for so many conditions, it’s hard to pinpoint a single use. A doctor might write a benzo prescription for a mental health disorder or even cramps associated with PMS. While these drugs can be life-saving for some, they can also be highly addictive. More and more, the conversation surrounding these drugs is turning to how to withdraw from benzos safely. And knowing a few pieces of key information can be lifesaving for you or someone you love.
“While clinical indications for prescribing benzos include acute seizures, severe muscle spasms and alcohol withdrawal, today they are most commonly used to treat insomnia and anxiety,” explains Dr. Lipi Roy, author and Director of Addiction Medicine and Community engagement at Urban Recovery in Brooklyn, NY.
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The effectiveness of these drugs can decrease with long-term use, prompting a higher dose and greater risk of side effects. Like many medications, benzos can cause drowsiness, confusion, reduced libido, weight gain, or more serious side effects, including severe low blood pressure and suicide. After talking to a doctor, some patients find the benefits outweigh the risks.
But a 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) estimated that 2 percent of Americans aged 12 and older were using tranquilizers for nonmedical purposes (tranquilizers include benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and other sedative medications). While short-term use at low doses is considered relatively safe, withdrawal can be extremely dangerous after after prolonged use. And that’s not the only serious problem with benzos. A study in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence reports that between 62 and 72 percent of patients treated in an ER for drug overdose were using more than one class of drug, including alcohol or opioids. Therefore, it’s important to provide education and support for anyone who takes benzos. Here are four important things you need to know about benzos.
Benzos work by affecting neurotransmitters in the brain.
Gamma-Aminobutyric acid, better known as GABA, is a chemical in the body that acts on neurons. As such, it is called a neurotransmitter. GABA functions as an inhibitor in the nervous system and it decreases communication between neurons. This has calming effects, since it means the neurons are less excitable and are firing less. Benzodiazepines work in the body by increasing the activity of GABA, which in turn leads to calming effects. This makes them good at treating things ranging from anxiety to seizures. But that’s not all they’re used for. Benzos can be a useful tool in surgery, as well. “They are used in medical procedures as anesthesia where heavy sedation is required,” says Dr. Joseph DeSanto, an Addiction Specialist for the BioCorRx Recovery Program. “They cause drowsiness, sleep, and a sense of calm in the short run.” Even one month of use can cause physical dependency, which is why most doctors prescribe the drug for short-term use.
There are four major ways to tell if you have a problem.
Dr. Roy thinks of four categories of symptoms or red flags that can tell you if you or someone in your life has a problem. First is behavioral symptoms, such as doctor-shopping for new prescriptions — seeking higher and higher doses to produce the same effect. The second is physical symptoms. These can include headaches, double-vision, muscle weakness, and increased respiratory infections. Third comes the psychosocial symptoms: increased anxiety, irritability, depression, and mood swings. Finally, she looks for cognitive issues, such as impaired memory, confusion, and slow reaction time.
Dr. DeSanto agrees and notes to listen to people in your life who might be concerned for your health. “You may also have a problem if your friends and loved ones are telling you they think you might have a problem,” he says. “[Or] if you’re experiencing memory issues where you might forget common passwords or codes that you use every day and, most importantly, you don’t have the ability to stop because you are experiencing uncomfortable withdrawal effects such as tremors, insomnia, increased anxiety, seizures, muscle twitching, and hallucinations.”
You should never quit cold turkey.
“I cannot emphasize this enough: abrupt cessation of benzos — without medical supervision and treatment — can be life-threatening,” warns Dr. Roy. “So, please speak to a doctor, ideally a psychiatrist or a doctor trained in addiction.” We’re talking severe anxiety, insomnia, hallucinations, tremor, or even death. If you think you have a problem, the solution isn’t to all of a sudden just stop. It’s to seek help.
It’s possible to withdraw safely.
Doctors agree: withdrawal should be done with medical supervision, either in an out-patient capacity or in a rehab center. “The safest approach to coming off of benzos is to slowly taper the doses over time,” says Dr. Roy. “The exact duration is more of an art than a science, and depends on how long and what dose a person was taking. Tapering can take weeks, months, even over a year.” There is hope and people do get clean after being addicted to benzos. Lately, celebrities such as Lena Dunham are speaking out about their own problems with the drug. Last year, she revealed she was six months sober from “misusing" Klonopin.
“If your addiction is severe, you may need to seek help at a hospital detox or inpatient rehabilitation drug and alcohol center for acute medical supervised detox,” says Dr. DeSanto. “It is best to consult a physician who is board-certified in addiction medicine, or your primary care physician, as soon as possible to get help. Always know there is help and you never have to do it on your own.”