We are all painfully aware of the current opioid crisis taking place in the United States of America. Since 2015 more than 33,000 people have died from opioid-related overdoses; deaths from heroin alone exceed those of gun homicides. And yet, over the last decade benzodiazepine-related deaths have continued to grow exponentially, as have the amount/rate of prescriptions for them.
The abuse of these drugs, such as Xanax (alprazolam) and Valium (diazepam) to name a few, has become all too casual in modern society, according to Dr. Anna Lembke, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine.
"These are highly addictive and potentially lethal drugs, and many people don't know that," Lembke said. "Sadly, most physicians are also unaware of this and blithely prescribe them without educating their patients about the risk of addiction." These sedative-hypnotic medications are prescribed for a litany of conditions, such as generalized anxiety disorders, panic attacks, short-term insomnia, seizures and muscle relaxation. But, with doctors prescribing these medicines more and more in recent years the overdose related deaths have skyrocketed.
Prescriptions for benzodiazepines have increased by 67% between years 1996 and 2013, that's an increase of 8.1 million prescriptions to 13.5 million prescriptions. That's a growth of 5.4 million prescriptions over 17 years. According to researchers the quantities of these drugs being obtained had more than tripled during that period. Consequently more people are becoming addicted to benzodiazepines and are tragically losing their lives to overdoses. Benzodiazepine-related overdoses multiplied sevenfold between 1995 and 2015, with an increase from 1,135 deaths to 8,791 deaths.
"Just like with opioids, people overestimate the benefits and underestimate the risks of benzodiazepines," Lembke said. "They are effective for a panic attack or severe insomnia, but when taken daily long-term, people develop tolerance and dependence. They stop working and they can even make anxiety and insomnia worse." Many overdose deaths involve users taking the medication along with another substance, namely opioids or alcohol. Even in the face of this growing problem the rates of prescribing benzodiazepines along with opioids has nearly doubled, jumping from 9% in 2001 to 17% in 2013.
With recent times we have learned there are much more effective treatments for chronic anxiety than the long-term reliance on benzodiazepines, as a result hordes of people have become dependent on them for years. "Benzodiazepines are best used intermittently," Lembke said, "no more than a couple of times a week. More frequent use should be limited to a very short duration, no more than two to four weeks."
"If you're someone who's relying on benzodiazepine to get through a day, you need to think very seriously about getting off of them," Lembke added.
When users become heavily dependent on the drug they find themselves no longer taking them to ease their symptoms (e.g. anxiety or insomnia), but to ward off symptoms of withdrawal, rather. Dr. Lembke is a huge proponent of regulations being placed in the medical community to restrict benzodiazepine use by employing methods similar to the ones now being used to combat the opioid epidemic. An example of said methods is a health care provider should be mandated to check a prescription database before prescribing benzodiazepines, in an effort to make sure the patient is misusing the drug, doctor-shopping or using the drug along with other dangerous pharmaceuticals.