Late last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported over 47,000 people died of a drug overdose in the U.S. during 2014, an all-time high. Over 14,000 were due to prescription opioids.
So it’s not surprising much of the focus on prescription overdoses has been on opioid painkillers like oxycodone. Certainly, opiate addiction is an enormous problem that has had devastating consequences for countless people. Most people know opiates aren’t the only dangerous drugs, too – cocaine and methamphetamines also take their toll as well.
However, there’s another class of drugs – legal to purchase with a prescription – that can be as dangerous and lethal as their more infamous cousins: benzodiazepines. Commonly called “benzos,” these sedatives are highly addictive, increasingly prescribed and commonly abused, with lethal results.
More prescriptions, more deaths
According to a new study published in the April 2016 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, prescriptions for benzodiazepines increased from 8.1 million in 1996 to 13.5 million in 2013. The amount prescribed increased as well, more than doubling during the time period measured in the study. The death rate from these increased more than four times, from 0.58 deaths per 100,000 adults to 3.14 deaths per 100,000 adults in 2013. Similarly, the CDC reports medications in this class were involved in 30 percent of the drug overdoses recorded in 2013.
“Overdoses from benzodiazepines have increased at a much faster rate than prescriptions for the drugs, indicating that people have been taking them in a riskier way over time,” said Marcus Bachuber, M.D., the study’s lead author in an Albert Einstein University press release.
What makes benzos dangerous?
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), benzos are classed as central nervous system depressants and are commonly prescribed for anxiety and depression. They’re part of a family of drugs which include sleep medications like Ambien and Lunesta. Common benzos are Valium and Xanax.
These drugs work by increasing the amount of the neurotransmitter GABA – gamma-aminobutyric acid. GABA reduces brain activity, and is produced when the brain’s neurons are overstimulated due to fear or anxiety. Benzos increase the amount of GABA produced, which creates their sedating effects.
For short-term use, benzos are generally safe to use. However, when taken for long periods of time, they can increase the body’s tolerance, which leads to physical dependence. Also, it’s dangerous to combine benzos with other drugs, especially alcohol and opiates; NIDA reports depressant use along with alcohol can affect heart and lung function, leading to death.
Quitting benzos and finding alternatives
Deciding to stop using a drug that has become a problem is a great choice, but it’s not a simple one. Benzodiazepines have dangerous withdrawal symptoms. Detoxing from any drug ideally should be done in a monitored, medical environment to avoid potential complications.
However, there are alternatives to medications when treating anxiety. In an Albert Einstein University press release, study co-author Sean Hennessy, Ph.D., said “This epidemic is almost entirely preventable, as the most common reason to use benzodiazepines is anxiety – which can be treated effectively and much more safely with talk therapy.” Talk therapy, or psychotherapy, involves teaching patients new methods of dealing with their problems and stressful situations. Indeed, more studies show these forms of therapy work – and without the risk of overdose.
Treating benzodiazepine addiction can be difficult – particularly as these drugs are often initially prescribed to treat mental disorders. Sovereign Health is an expert treatment provider for co-occurring conditions, and our Rancho San Diego facility is dedicated to helping adolescents aged 12 to 17 with mental and substance disorders. Please call our 24/7 helpline.
About the author
Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer for the Sovereign Health Group. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics across Sovereign’s portfolio of marketing and content products. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which’s he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author and designer at firstname.lastname@example.org.