Dangers of Benzodiazepine Abuse
By: AndreaBergman
Published: November 29, 2022

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), benzodiazepines are the third most commonly abused prescription medications in the United States. With more than 20 million people in the U.S over 12 years abusing benzodiazepines at least once in their lifetime.

Benzodiazepines are used clinically to treat anxiety, sleep disorder, muscle spasms, or seizures. However, when taken long-term without proper medication management, benzodiazepines can become addictive. Continuous benzodiazepine use can also lead to dangerous withdrawal symptoms when their use is abruptly stopped or reduced.

What Are Benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines are one of the most commonly prescribed drugs in the world. As a drug class, benzodiazepines act as central nervous system (CNS) depressants. They are prescribed to treat anxiety, sleep disorders and as anticonvulsants.

The first benzodiazepine (Librium) was synthesized by Leo Sternbach in 1955 while working on the development of tranquilizers. It was followed by Valium (diazepam) in 1963, then Xanax (Alprazolam) in 1981.

Benzodiazepine Molecular Structure

Chemically, a benzodiazepine is any member of a series of psychoactive drugs whose basic chemical structure is the fusion of a diazepine ring and a benzene ring. A psychoactive drug is a chemical substance that can cross the blood-brain barrier and get into the brain. These medications can alter brain function, thought processes, sensory perception, and mood. Clinicians ideally prescribe psychoactive medications for acute or short-term use.

Benzodiazepines enhance inhibitory GABA neurotransmitters at the GABA receptors in the brain, which consequently produce sedation, relaxation, etc. GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a chemical messenger responsible for regulating sleep cycles and reducing anxiety and muscle activity. When an individual takes a benzodiazepine drug like Valium or Xanax, it acts as an agonist on these receptors to calm the body down faster than it could naturally produce these calming chemicals.

Benzodiazepines are formulated as pills or tablets and mainly used orally, with intravenous use majorly found in clinical settings. More recently, many benzos have been diverted from their legal market and sold on the black market. Benzodiazepines are also used recreationally.

Popular Types Of Benzodiazepines

There are wide varieties of benzodiazepines. Here’s a list of the most popular benzodiazepines that are frequently abused:

  • Xanax:
    • Xanax is the most commonly prescribed benzodiazepine in the United States. It is also known as Alprazolam. This drug is used to treat panic attacks and anxiety, as well as symptoms of depression.
  • Valium:
    • Valium is a brand name of diazepam, a benzodiazepine drug. Diazepam treats anxiety disorders, alcohol withdrawal symptoms, or muscle spasms. Clinicians may also use it to control certain types of seizures.
  • Ativan:
    • Ativan (lorazepam) is used to treat anxiety that occurs with depression or stress. Lorazepam is also used to treat insomnia caused by an underlying medical condition.
  • Klonopin:
    • Clonazepam, commonly called Klonopin, is a potent benzodiazepine used to treat and manage panic disorders and seizures. After Xanax, Clonazepam is one of the most widely prescribed benzodiazepines by primary care providers.

Why People Use Benzodiazepines

There are many reasons why someone would take benzodiazepines as a medication. Some of the main conditions benzos treat include the following:

  • Mental health disorders like anxiety and depression
  • Insomnia
  • Seizures
  • Alcohol withdrawal
  • Muscle spasms
  • Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders
  • Panic disorders

Benzodiazepines are considered sedative-hypnotics. After they are used, they calm the body, providing relaxation, and reduced anxiety. However, using these drugs in excess, more frequently or in higher dosages than prescribed, can lead to addictive behavior. In addition, mixing benzos with other drugs or alcohol increases the likelihood of addiction. Polysubstance abuse treatment will help those who begin to mix these substances.

What Happens When Benzodiazepines Are Used With Other Drugs

Unfortunately, some people do not heed the warnings that indicate benzodiazepines are not safe to use with alcohol or other drugs. If benzos are used at the same time as other substances, there is likely to be unfavorable results to the user. Since alcohol and some drugs are known to alter user mindset, mixing a sedative can have detrimental results. Benzos often slow the body’s responses, making it more likely an injury can occur as a result of outside influences. Mixing another drug or alcohol with benzodiazepine use can also cause bodily harm in the forms of:

  • Heart rate increase or decrease
  • Hallucinations
  • Altered perception of time or distance
  • Paranoia, anxiety, or depression
  • Organ failure

Dangers Of Benzodiazepine Use

Many individuals use benzodiazepines as prescribed by their doctors without any issues or complications. However, when individuals abuse these medications either by taking them more frequently than they should or using them alongside other substances such as alcohol, they can cause serious health problems.

Benzodiazepine abuse can cause the following short-term effects:

  • Respiratory depression (decreased breathing rates)
  • Drowsiness and impaired coordination
  • Loss of judgment

Knowing The Signs Of Dangers Of Benzo Abuse

People need to know the dangers of benzo abuse before they start taking medication for ailments. This will help them to recognize a problem, so it is addressed quickly if needed. Some of the signs that indicate the dangers of benzo use are in play include:

  • Behavioral changes such as altered sleep or eating patterns or a change in friends
  • Physical changes such as stomach ailments, headaches, or dizziness
  • Going to more than one doctor in an attempt to obtain prescriptions
  • Hiding drug use from others

Withdrawal Symptoms of Benzodiazepine

When people take large amounts of benzodiazepines over long periods, they may experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking them. Various symptoms characterize benzodiazepine withdrawal. These symptoms usually begin within 24 hours of discontinuing drug use and can last up to two weeks after stopping.

Dangerous withdrawal symptoms of benzodiazepines include:

  • Severe anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Hyperactivity
  • Tremors
  • Life threatening seizures
  • Delirium
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Poor concentration
  • Sweating and
  • Gastrointestinal problems such as nausea or diarrhea.

What Makes Benzodiazepine Withdrawals Dangerous?

Benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening with several short and long-term effects. The severity of withdrawal symptoms and effects depends on how long the individual has taken the drug, how much they took, the body’s response to it, and whether it’s combined with other substances.

The chemical reason benzodiazepine withdrawals are dangerous is based on their mechanism of action. Benzodiazepines cause changes in brain chemistry during use, making it difficult for people who have used them for a long time to function healthily without them. This is due to the high dependence potential of benzodiazepines.

The intensity of withdrawal symptoms could be a result of different factors. For example, Longer half-life medications, like clonazepam, valium, and Librium, tend to have less acute withdrawal. Xanax and Ativan have more intense withdrawal due to their shorter half-lives.

Xanax withdrawal can start within hours due to the short half-life, whereas longer half-life drugs take longer to show withdrawal.

For instance, for short-acting benzodiazepines such as oxazepam and Alprazolam, withdrawal typically begins 1-2 days after the last dose and continues for 2-4 weeks or longer.

While for long-acting benzodiazepines such as diazepam and nitrazepam. Withdrawal typically begins 2-7 days after the last dose and continues for 2-8 weeks or longer.

Benzodiazepines affect neurotransmitters such as dopamine and glutamate involved in reward-seeking behavior and addiction. As a result, taking benzodiazepines for long periods will change how the brain functions. Benzodiazepines desensitize receptors in the brain, and individuals may experience withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety or insomnia when use is stopped.

How Dangerous Are Benzodiazepine Withdrawals VS. Other Drugs

Reports by the American Psychiatric Association’s Benzodiazepine Task Force on Benzodiazepine Dependence, Toxicity, and Abuse show that 40-80% of patients experience withdrawal symptoms.

Any form of drug abuse is dangerous. However, benzodiazepines are considered one of the most dangerous medications, considering how intense their withdrawal symptoms can be. Benzodiazepines have an extremely high addictive potential, and over 17% of a drug overdose in the U.S is attributed to benzodiazepines alone.

Compared to other classes of frequently abused drugs, such as stimulants and opioids, benzodiazepine withdrawal lasts longer and is more intense.

For instance, stimulant withdrawal usually begins 24 hours after the last use and may last between 3-5 days. While opioid withdrawal usually begins 12-48 hours after the last use and may last for about 4-20 days. Depending on the length of action of the opioid. In comparison, benzodiazepine withdrawal can last between 2-8 weeks or longer.

Getting Help If You Notice Benzo Abuse

If you or someone you care about has fallen victim to the dangers of benzo abuse, help is available. Lakeview Health provides a safe and welcoming environment necessary for recovery and healing. We believe that individualized plans tailored to those struggling with the dangers of benzo abuse work best for treatment. Our addiction treatment programs and therapies provide individuals and their families with the support and guidance they need to work through addiction and begin living healthier and happier lives.

We provide a range of treatment options, including the following:

Contact Lakeview Health today at 866.704.7692 if you or a loved one is struggling with benzodiazepine use and addiction. We are here to assist you with treatment options to help you get back on track to a normal and healthy lifestyle.

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