While much attention is given to the staggering toll of the opioid epidemic or the physical and mental health toll resulting from alcohol addiction, less attention is often paid to another highly addictive class of prescription drugs, benzodiazepines. Like prescription opioids (i.e. prescription painkillers), benzodiazepines are legally prescribed and, when used properly, are beneficial in helping those who struggle with specific conditions mitigate and reduce the severity of their symptoms. However, also like opioids, benzodiazepines can be highly addictive and are, unfortunately, frequently misused.
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Benzo Abuse in the United States
What Are Benzodiazepines? How Are They Addictive?
Benzodiazepines or “benzos” are a class of drugs commonly prescribed in the treatment of anxiety and panic disorders as well as difficulties sleeping, muscle relaxation, seizures, and as part of a treatment plan for alcohol use disorder recovery. Composed of prescription tranquilizers, also referred to as sedatives, this drug class includes well-known drugs such as Ativan, Xanax, Klonopin, and Valium, among others.
These drugs are not new. The medical community has been prescribing benzodiazepines since the 1960s. For the most part, when used for their intended purposes, they are highly effective; however, the chemical properties of the drug work in the brain and body in similar ways to opioids. Benzodiazepines act on the central nervous system producing sensations of relaxation and sedation. Because of their sedative effects and useful ability to reduce (and often entirely remove) feelings of panic and anxiety, addiction to happier feelings results in addition to the substance itself quite quickly. In many cases, after three or four weeks of regular use, a person will experience withdrawal when they stop taking the drug. For this reason, most treatments involving benzodiazepines are limited to no more than thirty-to-sixty-day increments.
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Types of Benzodiazepines That are Abused
Over time hundreds of different benzodiazepines have been produced; however, only fifteen are currently approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration. Unfortunately, the list of commonly abused benzodiazepines is rather long when one considers the limited number of legally prescribed drugs.
Xanax is the most commonly abused benzodiazepine and also the most common in cases of overdose. It is a prescription sedative used to treat anxiety and panic disorders.
Klonopin is used to prevent and control seizure activity in those with epilepsy or other seizure disorders. It is also used in some instances to control panic and anxiety attacks.
Valium is used to treat anxiety and other health conditions such as seizures, muscle spasms, and symptoms related to alcohol detox and withdrawal.
Ativan is a very commonly prescribed benzodiazepine used to treat anxiety. In some cases, it is also used to treat symptoms of epilepsy, insomnia, symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, and nausea related to cancer treatment.
Another benzodiazepine that is highly abused is Rohypnol. Rohypnol, also called the “date rape” drug or Roofies, is not legally prescribed in the United States; however, it is still abused recreationally. This list is by no means exhaustive but includes some of the more commonly abused benzodiazepine drugs. When abused, benzodiazepine drugs are typically consumed orally; however, they can be crushed and snorted or mixed with liquid and injected.
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Signs & Symptoms of Benzo Addiction
Benzodiazepine addiction produces both physical and psychological symptoms. Some of the most commonly recognized symptoms include:
- Physical weakness and exhaustion
- Slurred speech
- Poor judgment
- Impaired vision
- Lack of coordination
In more severe cases where abuse is approaching overdose symptoms may include more life-threatening conditions such as a coma, respiratory distress, and death (especially when the benzodiazepine is mixed with alcohol or another drug). Long-effects of benzodiazepine abuse include difficulties sleeping, tremors, headaches, problems concentrating, memory problems, and anorexia. Benzodiazepine abuse can also lead to worsening mental health issues, depending on how one reacts to the drug itself. Behavioral signs of abuse include many characteristics that are similar to other drugs. For example, withdrawing from family and friends, borrowing or stealing money, drug-seeking, reduction in efforts to maintain hygiene, new or abnormal mood swings, and new or increased legal and financial difficulties.
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Benzo Withdrawal & The Need for Detox
Because benzodiazepines are obtained through your medical provider, many do not consider the addictive and sometimes dangerous nature of these drugs. Use of the drug itself typically does not result in life-threatening effects (except under certain circumstances); however, withdrawal can be dangerous. It is highly recommended that those looking to detox from benzodiazepines do so in a controlled environment under medical supervision. Most withdrawal symptoms begin within twenty-four hours after your last dose and generally last from a few days to several weeks, depending on the severity and duration of your addiction. Acute withdrawal symptoms often include anxiety, difficulty sleeping, muscle spasms, gastric disturbances, hallucinations, seizures, cognitive difficulties, and others. For some, suicidal thoughts and actions may also emerge. For some, these symptoms can be severe and difficult to manage. In a medically supervised detox setting, addiction treatment professionals and medical providers can ensure you can detox safely from benzodiazepines. Depending on your needs, they will monitor your vitals continuously throughout the detox process and, in some cases, provide medications to help reduce the intensity and severity of your withdrawal symptoms. Ongoing medical supervision increases your safety should life-threatening withdrawal symptoms occur. Detoxing in a controlled setting is also beneficial because once detox is complete, you can transition directly to a therapeutic program designed to help you achieve and maintain ongoing sobriety.
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How to Find a Benzo Treatment Program Near You
Because benzodiazepines are prescribed through your medical provider to help mitigate the symptoms of other illnesses, many people do not consider their addictive qualities until it is too late. Even when taking these drugs as prescribed, tolerance and subsequent addiction can develop rapidly. If you are concerned about your dependence on benzodiazepines, contact the team at My Recovery today. Let our experienced staff help you find a treatment program near you where you can safely and effectively detox from benzodiazepines. If you have tried on your own to detox before and failed, recovery may seem out of reach, but with the right treatment and support, benzodiazepine addiction recovery is possible. Let the team at My Recovery help you take the first steps on your recovery journey.