What are benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines are sedative medications that work by calming the central nervous system when it is overexcited. This is achieved by benzodiazepines’ ability to increase the activity of GABA, the neurotransmitter responsible for inhibiting the activity of neurons. In turn, this slows and sedates the brain and central nervous system.

Which conditions are benzodiazepines used to treat?

There are many different types of benzodiazepines, and as such, there are myriad benzodiazepine uses. They are most frequently prescribed to treat either anxiety or insomnia because of their tranquilizing effect on the brain and central nervous system. One of the main advantages of benzodiazepines is that they act rather quickly, so they are effective at stopping symptoms of anxiety in their tracks.

Common types of benzodiazepines and their uses include:

  • Xanax (alprazolam): used to treat generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorders 
  • Valium (diazepam): used to treat anxiety, muscle spasms, seizures and symptoms caused by alcohol withdrawal like tremors
  • Klonopin (clonazepam): used to treat panic disorders and seizures
  • Lunesta (eszopiclone): used to treat anxiety
  • Librium (chlordiazepoxide): used to treat anxiety and symptoms of alcohol withdrawal
  • Ambien (zolpidem): used to treat insomnia
  • Restoril (temazepam): used to treat insomnia
  • Ativan (lorazepam): used to treat generalized anxiety disorder, anxiety symptoms, panic disorders, insomnia, seizures, symptoms of vertigo, depression, pain, symptoms of alcohol withdrawal and nausea resulting from chemotherapy

Are there any side effects associated with the use of benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines are a powerful sedative; with their strong calming effects also come strong adverse side effects.

Ranging from mild to serious, side effects of benzodiazepine use can include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Depression
  • Dizziness
  • Impaired cognition
  • Increased anxiety
  • Memory problems
  • Confusion
  • Irritability
  • Impaired balance and coordination
  • Sedation
  • Headaches
  • Muscle weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Dry mouth
  • Impaired motor skills

Benzodiazepines are often only prescribed for a few weeks or months at a time, as practitioners believe it is most helpful as a short-term treatment. Long-term benzodiazepine use can begin to impact the body and brain and cause additional side effects including:

  • Worsened anxiety
  • Agoraphobia
  • Blunted emotions and emotional responses
  • Depression
  • Impaired cognition
  • Loss of libido
  • Social phobias

Some individual types of benzodiazepines can also carry their own unique side effects in addition to the more common ones. Ambien, for example, has been known to cause episodes of sleepwalking wherein the individual eats, holds conversations, drives, or walks long distances while asleep. They are unaware of what they are doing and wake up with no memory of the episode; some Ambien users have even woken up behind the wheel. Xanax has additional possible side effects including nervousness, fainting, rash, lightheadedness, muscle spasms, nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, chest pain, menstrual disorders, constipation, diarrhea, incontinence, hyperventilation, slurred speech and hypotension.

What is benzodiazepine addiction?

In addition to their potentially serious side effects, benzodiazepines are highly physically and psychologically addictive. Even when an individual is taking their medication as prescribed, it can only take a few weeks for those at a higher risk to develop an addiction. An overdose on benzodiazepines can sedate the body and slow breathing to a dangerous degree, potentially leading to a coma.

When an individual becomes addicted to benzodiazepines but suddenly stops taking their usual dosage, their body goes into withdrawal. Long-term benzodiazepine use can make these withdrawal symptoms more severe.

Benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Seizures
  • Anxiety
  • Panic
  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart palpitations
  • Agitation
  • Sweating
  • Tremors
  • Hallucinations
  • Derealization
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Muscle pain
  • Muscle cramps
  • Restlessness

Because of these serious symptoms, the use of benzodiazepines must be slowly tapered off rather than quit cold turkey. Even for individuals struggling with addiction, it is often the advice of physicians to follow a closely monitored taper schedule – which may mean continuing the use of benzodiazepines for several weeks or months – so as to avoid the potentially fatal withdrawal symptoms.

How are benzodiazepines prescribed?

Benzodiazepines are heavily controlled substances and can only be prescribed by a licensed physician. Because of the great risk of becoming addicted to benzodiazepines, they are often not the first choice of medications to prescribe. When they are ultimately prescribed, it is typically for a short period of time because of the potential adverse side effects of using benzodiazepines long-term. Benzodiazepines are also most often used in severe cases when an individual’s condition gets to the point of interfering with their daily life.

Pyramid Walden recognizes the difficulty associated with rehabilitation from benzodiazepine addiction. Many individuals who develop an addiction do so after being prescribed the medication to treat a medical condition, which only becomes compounded after becoming addicted to benzodiazepines. Get help today by reaching out at 301-997-1300.