Benzodiazepines, a word that is often shortened to benzos, describes a category of psychoactive drugs that act as central nervous system (CNS) depressants. Benzos interact with receptors in the body that are associated with gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that is responsible for controlling neuron excitability. Benzos enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of GABA, which results in users experiencing a sense of sedation and relaxation.
For medical purposes, benzos are often used to treat symptoms associated with generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, insomnia, muscle pain, and seizures. Ativan, Klonopin, Restoril, Valium, and Xanax are among the more commonly prescribed benzodiazepine medications.
Because they can induce such a profound sense of serenity and sedation, benzos are often abused for both self-medicating and recreational purposes. Some individuals who are prescribed benzodiazepines for legitimate medical purposes fall into a habit of misusing these substances, while others are simply attracted by the enticement of a recreational high. Benzos are also sometimes abused to counter the effects of other forms of substance abuse. For example, some people who take amphetamines, cocaine, or other stimulants may also take benzos to alleviate the agitation and irritability that these drugs can cause.
Classified in the United States as Schedule IV controlled substances, benzos have been determined to have low risk for tolerance and addiction. However, this does not mean that these drugs are risk-free, especially when they are misused or abused. In 2010, benzos were involved in nearly 6,500 overdose deaths, which accounted for 30 percent of deaths related to prescription drug overdoses that year. If you or a loved one is struggling with an addiction to benzos, it is crucial to seek benzodiazepine abuse treatment as soon as possible.
Every year, doctors in the United States write more than 50 million prescriptions for benzodiazepines, and more than 5 percent of all U.S. adults, ages 18 and above, have used a benzodiazepine medication in the past 30 days.
According to the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), more than 350,000 annual emergency room visits are related to the misuse or abuse of a benzodiazepine. This means that benzos contribute to about one-third of all ER visits related to the illicit use of prescription medications each year.
Benzos also enhance the dangers of other commonly abused drugs. For example, from 1996 to 2006, the United States experienced a 250 percent increase in fatal overdoses involving opioid-based medications. More than 50 percent of those who overdosed on opioids also had traces of benzodiazepines in their system at time of death.
In the 10-year period between 1994 and 2004, benzo-related admissions to addiction treatment programs increased by more than 100 percent, rising from 3,257 to 7,827.
Causes and Risk Factors for Benzodiazepine Abuse
The abuse of benzodiazepines and other drugs can result from a combination of genetic and environmental influences.
Genetic: Individuals who have a first-degree relative who have developed a substance use disorder are more likely to have a similar problem than are individuals who have no family history of drug abuse or addiction. Also, people with first-degree relatives who have suffered from mental illness have a similarly increased risk for addiction. In the specific case of benzo abuse and addiction, people who are genetically predisposed to certain conditions, such as anxiety disorders, are also more likely to abuse the medications that are prescribed to treat these conditions.
Environmental: Family history and habits can also be environmental influences on the development of a substance use disorder. People who were raised in households where substance abuse, domestic violence, or other forms of chaos are commonplace are more likely to engage in substance abuse than are those who had healthier and more supportive home lives. Also, individuals who live in communities where substance abuse occurs frequently, or who work in high-stress jobs, may be more likely to seek relief via substance abuse.
- Age (benzo abuse risk increases with age)
- Gender (benzo abuse is more common among women)
- Family history of substance use disorders and/or mental illness
- Family history of domestic violence, child abuse, and/or other trauma
- Personal history of prior substance abuse and/or mental illness
- Poor coping skills
- Associating with individuals who abuse drugs
Signs and Symptoms of Benzodiazepine Abuse
The abuse of benzodiazepines or other prescription medications may be difficult to discern and can look significantly different depending upon the drug being abused and the personal history of the person who is abusing the drug. That said, individuals who demonstrate some or many of the following signs may be struggling with benzo abuse:
- Visiting multiple doctors in order to get duplicate prescriptions
- Borrowing or stealing medications that have been prescribed to someone else
- Reliance upon medications to deal with everyday stresses or pressures
- Using larger-than-directed amounts of a prescribed medications
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Taking medication in secret and/or lying about one’s use of medications
- Poor coordination
- Clumsiness, weakness, and other signs of impaired motor skills
- Slurred speech
- Blurred vision
- Slowed, shallow, or difficult breathing
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Twitches and tremors
- Trouble making decisions
- Using poor judgment
- Retrograde amnesia
- Hallucinations and delusions
- Irritability or agitation when unable to use or acquire benzos
Effects of Benzodiazepine Abuse
Benzodiazepine abuse can cause many negative health effects, including the following:
- Muscle weakness
- Muscle spasms
- Breathing problems
- Coordination problems
- Memory problems
People who engage in benzo abuse may also suffering from the following co-occurring disorders:
- Anxiety disorders
- Major depressive disorder
- Persistent depressive disorder
- Bipolar disorder
- Other substance use disorders
Effects of Withdrawal and Overdose
Effects of benzodiazepine withdrawal: Cessation of benzo use after extended abuse is likely to be accompanied by a series of painful and frustrating withdrawal symptoms, of which may include the following:
- Powerful drug cravings
- Increased urination
- Flu-like symptoms
- Increased sensitivity to touch and sound
- Severe depression
- Ringing in the ears
- High blood pressure
Effects of benzodiazepine overdose: People who abuse benzos, especially those who do so in combination with other drugs, have a heightened risk of overdose, which may be indicated by the following symptoms or effects:
- Memory failure
- Difficulty breathing
- Irregular heart rate
- Dangerously low blood pressure
- Short-term memory failure
- Double vision
- Loss of consciousness