Abuse of Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines belong to the class of prescription drugs known as tranquilizers. They are among the most commonly prescribed pharmaceutical drugs in psychiatric medicine. With just as quick glance at a sample list of the drugs classified as benzodiazepines, almost any American adult will recognize one of more of these brands. Some of the most commonly prescribed benzodiazepines include:

  • Valium
  • Xanax
  • Ativan
  • Klonopin

This wide class of drugs is subcategorized in terms of whether the drug’s effects are ultra-short acting (including the drugs Halcion and Versed), short acting (Xanax, Ativan), or long acting (Valium, Librium). These drugs can be prescribed on an as-needed basis or as part of a regimented medication plan.

benzo overdose

Benzodiazepines are multi-purposed drugs and used to treat the following issues:

  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Tense muscles
  • Seizures
  • Alcohol withdrawal
  • Pain

At the neurological level, benzodiazepines work by attaching to GABA receptors in the brain. GABA, which is a naturally occurring neurotransmitter in the brain, is the body’s intended chemical to attach to the GABA receptor. Benzodiazepines improve the functioning of the GABA receptor, and a result of this enhancement, the user experiences a pleasing sensation of hypnosis.

Side Effects

The potential of side effects is a reality of taking nearly any prescription medication. Side effects encompass a range of different possibilities, such as:

  • Common side effects
  • Serious side effects
  • Allergic reactions
  • Rare side effect
  • Overdose signs
  • Withdrawal symptoms

Benzodiazepines include but are not limited to the following common side effects:

  • Drowsiness or dizziness
  • Depression
  • Blurred vision
  • Trembling
  • Confusion
  • Weakness
  • Headache
  • Memory loss

Serious side effects of taking benzodiazepines include but are not limited to a change in heart rate, vision impairment, and/or jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and/or skin). Sometimes, serious side effects may actually be evidence of an allergic reaction. Benzodiazepines can cause allergic reactions in some users, which include the following symptoms:

  • Swelling
  • Rash
  • Itching
  • Trouble breathing
  • Dizziness

No one ever thinks that they will be the rare case when it comes to experiencing an uncommon reaction to a drug. Especially for non-prescribed abusers who do not have the benefit of medical supervision by a prescribing doctor, it is critical to recognize any rare side effects. Uncommon, infrequent side effects are more likely to occur when using the short-acting variety of benzodiazepines (such as Xanax or Ativan) but can occur when using any benzodiazepine. While short-term use can result in experiencing rare side effects, it is important to know that there have been reports of even one-time users suffering such reactions. The rare side effects associated with benzodiazepines include:

  • Aggressiveness and violence
  • Depression, with possible suicidal thoughts
  • Personality changes
  • Hallucinations
  • Losing touch with reality
  • Additional psychiatric symptoms
  • Depersonalization

Anyone taking benzodiazepines on a continuous basis is likely to experience a side effect common to most prescription drugs – tolerance. In the interest of self-preservation, the body is designed to build a tolerance to drugs. Tolerance causes users to require more of a drug over time to achieve the intended or familiar effect. Tolerance is a clear sign of physical dependence, but a person can be physically dependent on a drug without being mentally dependent or addicted. Once a physical dependence/tolerance on benzodiazepines is reached, stopping use of these drugs or appreciably reducing the regular dosage will result in withdrawal symptoms which include, but are not limited to:

  • Loss of sense of self or self-worth
  • Agitation
  • Insomnia
  • Tremors
  • Seizures
  • Muscle cramping
  • Vomiting
  • Sweating

A benzodiazepine overdose, which occurs when the volume of this drug in the body reaches a toxic level, rarely results in death. However, the use of benzodiazepines in combination with alcohol or other drugs can prove fatal. Signs of an overdose may overlap with serious side effects of benzodiazepine use. Short of a benzodiazepine user losing consciousness or displaying any severe symptoms, it may be difficult for the naked eye to determine if an overdose is occurring. The best practice is to take note of any new symptoms, or a worsening/heightening of side effects, as these may be an indication of an overdose. Medical attention is necessary in the case of an overdose. Signs of overdose to watch for include:

  • Dizziness
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Agitation
  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Blurred vision
  • Anxiety

Benzodiazepine Abuse

Drug addictDrug abuse is a complex personal and societal phenomenon that cannot be reduced to a simple explanation. While research in addiction science has discovered that some people are more prone than others to addiction, the contributing role of nature versus nurture continues to be a healthy debate in this area of science. Research has shown that in addition to biology, environmental influences, unemployment, peer pressure, and a low socioeconomic status are key factors in whether a person will become a drug abuser.

Benzodiazepines abuse stems in part from the psychoactive (usually tranquilizing) effect on users, as well as the widespread availability of these drugs. The more therapeutic a psychoactive drug, the more likely it will be prescribed, with the unwanted effect that there can be an increase in the diversion of these drugs into the possession of non-prescribed users. Some of these users abuse these drugs chronically, but even a new or short-term user can overdose, either accidentally or intentionally. Benzodiazepine abuse is part of the large problem of the prescription drug abuse epidemic in America.

Recognizing benzodiazepine abuse can be difficult. As discussed above, there are a host of side effects, ranging in severity, associated with benzodiazepine use. Some prescribed users are physically dependent on benzodiazepines, but as they are under the care of the prescribing doctor, they can be strategically weaned off this drug, as necessary, to lessen the impact of any undesirable withdrawal effects. Such patients can also be monitored to ensure that they do not slip into a psychological or emotional dependence on benzodiazepines, which can happen to any user.

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Usually, the recognizable telltale signs that a person has become mentally addicted to benzodiazepines relate to their psychology and behavior. When a person is mentally addicted to a drug, the drug usually has the effect of being like the sun at the center of their universe – all of life revolves around it. When a person is taking a prescription drug, such as benzodiazepines, and then begins to exhibit any of the following behaviors (among other possibilities), it is likely time to seek rehab services to prevent any further personal, financial, and health losses:

  • Failing to meet work, school, personal, or family obligations
  • Spending a disproportionate amount or resources getting more of the drug
  • Driving long distances or going out of town to see different doctors
  • Going to different pharmacies to fill different prescriptions for the same drug
  • Having an unkempt appearance
  • Falling behind in rent, utility bills, or car insurance payments
  • Being defensive about the drug use

One of the greatest indications of mental addiction are the changes in lifestyle, personality, and habit that naturally come about. For instance, a person likely has a drug problem if they do not have a criminal history, but then get caught stealing or engaging in any other criminal activity in service to the drug abuse. The substance abusers who make national news for robbing pharmacies for prescription drugs do not become that way overnight. The earlier an intervention, the better. Not only can an early intervention prevent or stem criminal activity, but it can stop the further deterioration of the benzodiazepines abuser’s health.


Harmful Health Effects of Benzodiazepine Abuse

man depressed outpatient

According to an article published in Psychology Today, the British press uncovered evidence that benzodiazepines such as Valium and Xanax can cause brain damage. The article has a political/social justice bend as it explains how the British press learned that the United Kingdom’s Medical Research Council had proof, over 30 years ago, of the dangers of benzodiazepine use, but still allowed millions of prescriptions to be written for its citizens. However sensational the story from a news coverage perspective, the article brings to light that there may be more hazards associated with benzodiazepines than users may know.

The article references numerous research findings that compared benzodiazepines to control groups as well as the symptoms users report having. Collectively, some of the research findings, which are international in scope (including the US and the UK), found that benzodiazepine use could cause:

  • Memory loss
  • Diminished social interactions
  • Brain shrinkage
  • Major depressive disorder
  • Brain atrophy
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Loss of interest in personal care
  • Poorer health condition overall

One concern, and every American should consider it before taking a benzodiazepine, is that brain abnormalities often develop after pharmaceutical clinical trials for these drugs end. The research studies referenced in the article most often occurred after study subjects had used benzodiazepines for some time. An additional caution relates to how difficult it can be for users to end benzodiazepine use once dependence has formed. Also, withdrawal symptoms have continued, in some reported cases, for many years. However, treatment can help to mitigate these issues and currently offers the best response to benzodiazepine abuse.

At Axis, our treatment program can provide clients suffering from benzodiazepine abuse with much needed help. We provide evidence-based, scientifically sound treatment services that ensure a safe detox and comfortable abstinence maintenance program. However forceful the grip of addiction, rehab can set you free starting today. Call now to learn more.