Understanding Benzo Addiction
Learn about benzo addiction & abuse
Benzodiazepines are a category of prescription medications that are often referred to as tranquilizers or muscle relaxants. Also known as benzos or BZD, benzodiazepines act as a central nervous system depressant, producing mild to extreme sedation. The effects of most benzos last from 6 to 24 hours. Common benzodiazepines include diazepam, lorazepam, clonazepam, alprazolam, and temazepam, which are marketed under the trade names Valium, Ativan, Klonopin, Xanax, and Restoril, respectively.
U.S. pharmacies fill about 128 million prescriptions for benzodiazepines every year. (For purposes of comparison, the most common prescription drug, hydrocodone, is prescribed about 132 million times each year.) Benzos are most often prescribed for people who are suffering from anxiety, insomnia, muscle pain, and seizures. Drugs in this category are also used in conjunction with anesthesia prior to surgery and in medication-assisted treatment for alcohol withdrawal.
Though the DEA considers benzos to have low risk for tolerance or addiction, these drugs can be dangerous and both tolerance and addiction can occur. As is the case with many prescription medications, both their prevalence and the perceived safety of medically approved drugs have made benzo abuse an unfortunately common phenomenon. Some people become dependent upon benzos after having taken them for legitimate medical purposes, while others abuse them for recreational purposes. Many who engage in recreational benzo abuse do so in an effort to counterbalance negative effects from other abused substances. For example, cocaine addicts may take benzos to counteract the irritability and agitation that often accompanies cocaine use.
When benzos are abused in conjunction with other drugs, the risk of overdose and resultant physical or mental harm increases significantly.
Finally, a particularly heinous type of benzo abuse involves their use as a “date rape” drug. In this scenario, predatory individuals surreptitiously mix benzos into food or drink, causing their victims to become incapacitated and, in some cases, prone to temporary amnesia – thus removing their ability to fight off an assault and also impairing their ability to remember the attack when they regain consciousness.
Benzo abuse statistics
According to the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) benzos are responsible for more than 300,000 emergency room visits each year, and about 10 deaths. In recent years, alprazolam (Xanax) has associated with the greatest number of annual ER visits, accounting for almost 125,000 visits in 2010.
The National Survey for Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), an annual nationwide and state-by-state assessment sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Agency (SAMHSA), reports that about 12.4 million Americans (ages 12 and above) have abused a benzo at least once in their lives.
Causes & Risks
Causes and risk factors for benzo abuse
Several factors can increase the likelihood that a person will abuse benzodiazepines or similar substances. If you or someone close to you has a problem with benzodiazepine abuse, professional treatment should be obtained as soon as possible. The following are among the more common genetic and environmental influences of benzo abuse, along with a list of general risk factors:
Genetic: Multiple studies have strongly suggested a genetic influence on substance abuse and addiction. People whose parents or siblings struggled with addiction are at increased risk for developing the same problem.
Environmental: Substance abuse and addiction within the family can be an environmental cause as well as a genetic one. In the case of benzos and other prescription medications, children of parents who are quick to self-medicate, or to seek pharmaceutical solutions to issues such as stress, pressure, or frustration, are more likely to adapt this behavior themselves.
- Family or personal history of substance abuse and addiction
- Family or personal history of mental illness
- Family or personal history of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
- Chronic pain or similar condition requiring extended use of prescription medication
- Low socioeconomic status
- Peer pressure
Signs & Symptoms
Signs and symptoms of benzo abuse
Substance abuse can reveal itself in myriad ways, some more readily apparent than others. While no one sign or symptom is absolute proof that a person has been abusing benzos or any other forms of prescription medications, the following signs could indicate that a problem exists:
- Reliance on pills when faced with everyday stresses or pressures
- Using medications past the point of medical direction
- Using increasingly larger amounts of the medication
- “Doctor shopping” or other attempts to acquire benzo prescriptions
- Asking to borrow medications that have been prescribed to someone else
- Drowsiness or excessive sleepiness
- Slurred speech
- Poor motor skills, clumsiness, or lack of coordination
- Increased reaction time
- Vision problems
- Slowed heartbeat and breathing
- Impaired ability to make decisions
- Poor judgment
- Short-term memory loss or amnesia
- Expressions of unprovoked anger or aggression
- Inability to follow even relatively simple conversations
- Demonstrations of paranoia
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Pattern of deceptiveness and secrecy
Effects of benzo abuse
Benzodiazepine abuse has been associated with several short- and long-term health effects, including the following:
- Respiratory distress
- Memory loss
- Severe headaches
- Muscle weakness
- Muscle spasms
Benzo abuse & co-occurring disorders
Many people who abuse benzodiazepines area also dealing with another mental or behavioral disorder. The following are among the more common co-occurring disorders
- Chronic pain
- Anxiety disorder
- Bipolar disorder
- Other forms of substance abuse/addiction