Benzodiazepine addiction is signified by compulsive behaviors related to taking the drugs.

Addictive Potential

Benzodiazepines are depressant psychoactive drugs, classified as sedative-hypnotics. They are prescribed to treat a number of conditions, including anxiety, insomnia, and convulsant disorders.

While generally considered safe and effective, mainly when used short term or intermittently, benzodiazepines are highly addictive. Users can become dependent on their calming and tranquilizing effects. They can also quickly develop tolerance to these drugs, which makes them prone to abuse.

Because most benzodiazepine users start off using the drug in a safe and controlled manner — prescribed by their doctor to treat a condition — it may initially be harder to identify an individual who is struggling with abuse of benzodiazepines. Even when used appropriately, benzodiazepines may result in noticeable side effects like confusion or drowsiness, so these symptoms might just seem like part of normal use.

A user’s dependence on the drug may grow gradually over time. As the person begins using the drug outside the parameters of their prescription, abuse issues take hold. 

Brief History of Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines were discovered in the 1930s by Leo Sternback at the Hoffman-LaRoche Company. Hoffman LaRoche didn’t release the product until 1957 when they put Librium (a medication mostly used to treat anxiety) on the market.

There was little discussion about benzodiazepine addiction until the 1980s when they became among the most popularly prescribed medications. 

Use Today: Statistics and Bad Press

The use of benzodiazepines is widespread across the U.S. and has grown dramatically since the 1990s.

Perhaps due to the continued focus on opioid addiction, the rise in benzodiazepine use has garnered relatively little attention. This began to change in 2018, in part due to an editorial article published in the New England Journal of Medicine titled “Our Other Prescription Problem,” which highlighted the continued trend of benzodiazepine abuse.

To understand just how popular benzodiazepine use has become, one only has to look at the numbers.

  • The number of adults who filled a prescription for benzodiazepines rose from 8.1 million in 1996 to 13.5 million in 2013. That’s a 67 percent increase
  • Between 1991 and 2009, Medicaid expenditures increased by almost $40 million even though prices for the drugs generally dropped
  • U.S. doctors and prescribers wrote 37.6 benzodiazepine prescriptions for every 100 people in 2012.  

Symptoms of Benzodiazepine Use

The symptoms of benzodiazepine use may vary greatly, depending on a number of factors.

  • Age of user
  • Dosage
  • Which benzodiazepine is being used
  • Whether any other substances are being used
  • Tolerance to the drug
  • Hereditary factors

Short-Term Effects of Benzodiazepine Use May Include the Following:

  • Poor motor coordination
  • Lethargy
  • Thinking and memory problems
  • Blurred vision
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Depression
  • Nausea and stomach discomfort
  • Constipation
  • Tremors
  • Difficulty speaking clearly

Higher doses of benzodiazepines may result in additional symptoms.

  • Slow reflexes
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Erratic behavior that may include euphoria or hostility

Symptoms of Addiction

Individuals who have developed a dependency on benzodiazepines are likely to exhibit the above side effects. Because the dependency on benzodiazepines is likely to grow gradually, it may be hard to recognize when someone has become addicted.

Benzodiazepine Abuse May Be a Problem When an Individual:

  • Begins taking a benzodiazepine for a particular issue, such as insomnia, but then begins using the pills for other reasons.
  • Seems to be taking more benzodiazepine pills or tablets at multiple times throughout the day.
  • Exhibits side effects, like slurred speech or thinking problems, that seem to be getting worse. This may indicate the user has developed a tolerance and is taking a higher dose.
  • Exhibits erratic and unpredictable behavior.
  • Becomes defensive or secretive about their use of benzodiazepines
  • Seems to be switching doctors a lot. They may be seeing multiple doctors to get higher doses or multiple prescriptions of benzodiazepines.

What Makes Benzodiazepine Addiction Unique

Each addiction is unique as is each person who struggles with one. Benzodiazepine abuse is often unique from other types of substance abuse in the following ways:

  • Most users begin taking benzodiazepines for a very specific reason, and they are legitimately prescribed. When they begin taking the pills or tablets, they are not looking to get high. They are taking a remedy as advised by their doctor.
  • Users may begin to consider the side effects are normal when prescribed the drugs.
  • When users develop a tolerance to benzodiazepines, they may be less likely to realize they are dependent on them. The prescription may begin to be somewhat less effective, and when told of this, an unaware doctor may prescribe a higher dose.
  • Benzodiazepines are extremely dangerous to mix with alcohol or opioids because of their depressive traits. Individuals who take benzodiazepines on a regular basis may forget how severe these interactions can be and drink while they still have the drugs in their system
  • Compared to many other prescription drugs, withdrawal from benzodiazepines is extreme. Side effects can include seizures and tremors. Users should never attempt to quit benzodiazepines cold turkey.

Populations Affected by Benzodiazepine Addiction

Anyone can become dependent on benzodiazepines. Because of prescription trends and the pharmacology of the drugs, some populations seem to be especially vulnerable to a benzodiazepine abuse problem.

  • Individuals struggling with insomnia or anxiety: Benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed for both anxiety and insomnia. The calming effect of benzos can provide relief to these individuals, and they may be drawn into using higher and higher doses to deal with everyday life.
  • Older people: An article in The New York Times highlighted the growing problems of benzodiazepine prescriptions among the elderly, who are vulnerable to the drug’s adverse effects on cognition and memory. They’re also more vulnerable to being accidentally prescribed both opioids and benzodiazepines — a combination that can be dangerous and even deadly. 

Getting Help

People who are addicted to benzodiazepines should never stop taking them suddenly. A physician-supervised tapered approach is required to be weaned off the drugs safely. Addiction therapy is needed to address issues related to substance abuse.

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