04 Jun The Benzo Epidemic in America
Benzodiazepines are a prescription drug and were created in the early 60’s as potential substitute for barbiturates. Doctors sought a less addictive and more effective way to treat phobias, anxieties and other forms of panic disorders. In many ways, they were successful in this mission, as barbiturates were mostly phased out by benzos in regular medical practice, especially when it came to management of insomnia or anxiety. While a patient was significantly less likely to overdose or grow a physical addiction to regular benzo use than they would from long-term use of barbiturates, that does not inherently mean that benzos are safe; the lesser of two evils is, often, still an evil. In other words, drug abuse was still an issue with benzos. A case could be made that this attitude fueled this lax and casual view, now held by many, which lead to the overmedication of America and the drug problem that has swept over every single town, city, and state. There is a benzo epidemic in this country, so you should be aware of the whys and wherefores, as well as possible solutions.
A Look at The Numbers
No one denies that Benzos were and still are absolutely effective at treating anxieties by suppressing fears or trepidations and the fact that benzos are the fourth most prescribed drug in the country are a testament to that. And for some people, they are necessary to survive, to manage their everyday lives, to fulfill their duties and obligations to both work and family. That said, there continues an alarming trend of that shows rising rates in prescriptions that correlates with exponential rises in addiction and overdoses. The CDC estimates that one in twenty Americans are regularly prescribed some form of benzo, be it Xanax, Ativan, Klonopin, Valium or a dozen other knockoffs.
According to an annual survey conducted by the Medical Expenditure Panel between 1996 and 2013, “The number of adults with benzodiazepine prescriptions grew by more than two thirds, from 8.1 million to 13.5 million, the researchers found. In 1996, around 4 percent of people surveyed had filled a benzodiazepine prescription, and by 2013, this had risen to 5.6 percent. Further, the medication distributed had grown three hundred percent. After standardizing doses of all drugs, they found that people with prescriptions received 1.4 times more medicines in 2013 than 20 years earlier.
Despite the widespread use and abuse of benzos, a relatively scant amount of research has been done that focused on patient age or duration of use. To remedy that, in 2008, Dr. Mark Olfson conducted a study to see benzodiazepine prescription patterns within the U.S. and to identify the patient age and duration of use. After a decade-long review, they found, “In 2008, approximately 5.2% of US adults aged 18 to 80 years used Benzodiazepines. The percentage who used benzodiazepines increased with age from 2.6% (18-35 years) to 5.4% (36-60 years) to 7.4% (51-64 years) to 8.7% (65-80 years). Benzos use was nearly twice as common amongst women as men.” Olfson and company also found the older you were, the likelier you were taking the drugs for extended periods of time, with nearly one in three elderly users taking benzos for months at a time.
Analysts forecast that over 150,000,000 benzo prescriptions will be written in 2018 alone with at least two benzos, Xanax, Ativan, making the ignominious top ten list of most prescribed drugs in the country. SAMSHA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, estimates that up to one in three of the people prescribed the drug will become addicted. It should also be noted that even for those who do not fall into addiction can face severe long-term health consequences of using benzos for even a six-month period.
One of the most severe possible ramifications of benzo use is overdose and death. Since 2000, there has been a 500% increase in the benzo overdose death rate, with approximately 9,000 Americans dying last year alone. Surprisingly, this overdose rate has increased at a far faster rate than the rate of annual benzo prescriptions. This is further evidenced by the growing percentage of benzo related emergency department visits annually. In 2008, there were 272,000 ER visits, and by 2011, there was 426,000 benzo related ER visits.
While quite dangerous on their own, benzos are exceedingly deadly when combined with other substances. In 2016, dozens of public health officials and researchers from the FDA petitioned that the FDA put black box warnings on both benzos and opioids that warn of the dangers of combining the two, stating that, “Concurrent use contributes to the risk of fatal overdose.” They backed up this assertion by showing that of the Benzo related overdoses, one was four times more likely to occur if there were opioids mixed in.
According to Dr. Tae Woo Park, a medical professor at Brown University, “People should be cautious when taking benzodiazepines, particularly when combining them with alcohol or opioid medications. Typically, overdose deaths occurs when the benzodiazepine is combined with another sedating medication such as an opioid or alcohol.” Unfortunately, his warnings have been proven accurate time and time again as seen in the cases of superstars like Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, and Elvis.
Regardless of the rising rates of benzo addiction, overdose and death, odds are, doctors will continue to prescribe benzos Americans will continue to be prescribed benzos at an ever-increasing rate. It is highly likely that you or someone you know will be prescribed a benzo at some point in your life; therefore it is essential that you understand how benzos work and how we find ourselves in the middle of this growing epidemic.
What are Benzodiazepines?
Benzos are extremely helpful in treating anxiety. They do this by strengthening the reaction between the brain and the GABA, gamma-aminobutyric acid, neurotransmitter. This stimulation works its way into the central nervous system and dampens cell activity, thus altering the ways the brain may interpret fear or apprehension. As mentioned, there are dozens of benzos, but the most popular benzos are Alprazolam (Xanax), Diazepam (Valium), Lorazepam (Ativan), and Clonazepam (Ativan). Xanax, the most popular of the bunch, generally come in the shape of 2-milligram bars, or .5 milligram footballs and these shapes have popularized the Xanax street names, “Bars,” “Footballs.”
While they may come in different shapes and doses, the differences between the various benzodiazepines are minimal. Such variations are generally related to the time to act, the potency and the duration of effects. The most immediate effects will last anywhere from four to eight hours with side effects lasting up to a day later, though much of that depends on one’s size, weight, gender, and age, not to mention the tolerance that has been built up over time. The expected immediate side-effects are calm, drowsiness, induced sleep, and general relief from worries.
Harmful Direct Effects of Regular Benzo Use
Although there are a variety of significant side-effects, for the right people, there nearly just as many undesired health consequences that are expected with daily benzo use. One possible explanation for the rising benzo epidemic is that many doctors do not do a thorough enough job going over the potential ramifications of long-term use. This can include neglecting to discuss the ease of addiction, overdose, and the dangers of mixing the drug with any other substance, especially when one has become accustomed to benzos being in their system.
Americans have a habit of exceeding their recommended dose or frequency, and unfortunately, such actions always precede addiction. Harmful direct effects of benzo use may include: constipation, consternation, disassociated state, dizziness, dry mouth, fatigue, headache, issues with concentration, irritability, lowered libido, nausea, and pain in the joints. On top of that, many find their anxiety only grows worse, especially when they do not have the drug. If you or a loved one experiences changes in appetite, behavior, or mood, have issues with confusion, speech, or breathing, or experience, depression seizures or hallucinations, immediately seek medical attention.
Long-term Side Effects of Benzos
Medical experts widely agree that Xanax should not be used long-term. Basically, any point after four months can have severe repercussions to one’s health. Such health problems include:
- Addiction – While it may be the most obvious, it often goes overlooked. When a person builds up a tolerance to benzos, they not only have to take more and more to experience the same effects, they become further and further reliant upon it to function regularly. It becomes their new standard, their only coping mechanism. As a result, they find that their anxiety or phobias have only gotten worse. Although physical dependence on the drug is not as common as mental addiction, it does occur, and those who deal with it can face severe withdrawal symptoms.
- Alzheimer’s – a 2016 study found that Benzo use was associated with a substantially increased likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s. The odds of this occurring were considerably higher the longer a user took the Benzo. This duration of use was not even in the years but in the months of continuous use.
- Damage to the brain – Regular benzo use effectively re-writes the brain’s neural pathways, altering how effectively it communicates with the CNS. As a result, benzo users have issues with concentration, balance, coordination, motivation, and speech. Such damage is made only worse when benzos are taken with alcohol or opioids.
- Forgetfulness – Memory issues are one of the most commonly reported side-effects of benzo use. The hazy feeling of benzo use, combined with the brain damage occurring, especially when added to other substances, is a recipe for amnesia. Because of this sense of induced amnesia, benzo use can have negative consequences on one’s home and work life due to forgotten obligations.
- Overdose – Overdoses can occur with any person who takes more benzos than their recommended dose or more frequently. The odds of this occurring are astronomically higher when paired with another substance.
- Suicide – Sadly, many who take benzos end up worse off than when they started. Depression can be common, primarily due to the mood swings, memory issues, and chemical imbalances that arise from long-term use. As a result, benzo users, who already have a much higher rate of suicidality than the general population, are even more likely to consider suicide.
The stats all seem to agree that benzos are one of the most used and abused legal drugs available to Americans. Surprisingly, while they remain a popular party drug for people under the age of 25, benzo addiction can be found in high rates amongst all age groups, regardless of socioeconomic status, race or gender. Quite simply, this is an epidemic that touches everyone.
If you not only regularly use benzos, but do so at an increased rate, you should be concerned about the ramifications of your actions. As you build a tolerance, the number of pills taken will grow exponentially, with the average benzo addict taking anywhere from twenty to thirty pills daily. Such poor decision making is not limited merely to your pill intake. Quite often, other forms of pleasure-seeking behavior manifest or the addict looks to get a better high by either finding a new, stronger drug or combining their benzo use with other substances. Such actions are mainly the reason for why we see growing rates of overdose and tragic deaths. Therefore, if you see these symptoms in your life, get help right away rather than letting the addiction fester. If you allow it to dig its claws in, to gain purchase in your life, recovery will be all that much harder to achieve.
Increased rates of benzo addiction and benzo related deaths are visible signs that we currently find ourselves in the middle of a benzodiazepine epidemic. Because of this, if you or a loved one are in fact addicted, seek help from a medical professional. Although benzo withdrawals are in most cases, non-life threatening, it is challenging to do on one’s own without treatment. Most experts would advise the addict to choose between an inpatient or outpatient rehab program and then move accordingly. Although benzo addiction is an epidemic, you do not have to be one of those statistics. If you or a loved one are in need of a benzo detox, contact Georgia Drug Detox today and receice the help you need.
“Benzo Epidemic: A Killer Hiding in the Shadow of Opioids.” Drugabuse.com. 14 Mar. 2019. https://drugabuse.com/benzo-epidemic-a-killer-hiding-in-the-shadow-of-opioids/
Scher, Avichai. “Dangers of Rising Benzo Prescriptions Raise Alarms of Next Drug Crisis.” NBC News. 28 July 2018. 14 Mar. 2019. https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/dangers-rising-benzo-prescriptions-raise-alarms-next-drug-crisis-n895361
Sack, David. “Benzodiazepines: The Danger Lurking in the Shadow of Opiates.” Psychology Today. 29 June 2017. 14 Mar. 2019. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/where-science-meets-the-steps/201706/benzodiazepines-the-danger-lurking-in-the-shadow-opiates