Abuse of benzodiazepines commonly referred to as “benzos”, carries with it a number of side effects. Benzo abuse leads to negative outcomes in the lives of the user and the lives of those around them. For those individuals looking to get help for their addiction, quitting the use of benzodiazepines can present a number of challenges. While difficult, withdrawal from benzos can also be life-threatening. For the families and loved ones of someone struggling with an addiction to benzodiazepines, understanding the side effects caused by their abuse is important to accurately assess the risk their continued abuse poses. In this article, we’ll explore some of the side effects of benzo abuse. We’ll look at what side effects can occur with only short-term usage as well as long-term usage. This is important because benzodiazepines can have short-term side effects that affect the safety of the user, including drowsiness, slowed motor skills, and impaired memory. At the same time, long-term benzodiazepine use runs a high risk of developing chemical dependence. Extended benzodiazepine use can also affect an individual’s emotional state, leading to depression or apathy. The abuse of benzodiazepines doesn’t just affect the individual taking benzos. Family members and loved ones suffer as well. The toll that benzodiazepine abuse can have on those closest to the addict is difficult to calculate, yet incredibly important to keep in mind. In the end, many of the side effects associated with benzodiazepine abuse should, if possible, be avoided before they arise. Some put individuals in danger, while others can lead to serious health complications. Recognizing the signs of benzodiazepine abuse early on and getting your loved one the help they need with prescription drug addiction treatment is often the best course of action.
What are Benzos?
Benzodiazepines have been around for quite some time, but many people aren’t familiar with what they are, what they are used for, and what they do. Benzodiazepines are a class of psychoactive drug that is used for its sedative effects. Benzos sedate the recipient by acting on the GABA neurotransmitter receptors in the brain, making GABA bind more effectively to receptor sites. Other drugs and substances, including alcohol and barbiturates, also interact with the GABA receptors in the central nervous system. Benzodiazepines are used to treat a wide variety of conditions. They have been demonstrated to be effective in treating anxiety and panic disorders, as well as insomnia. There are currently tens of millions of prescriptions for benzodiazepines in the United States, many of them under trade names that you might recognize. Among the most common benzos that are prescribed regularly are Xanax, Valium, Klonopin, and Ativan. While each of these drugs is a benzodiazepine, they may all be used to treat different conditions.
One thing that gets confusing for many people is the fact that benzodiazepines are one of the most commonly prescribed types of drugs available, so the mistaken assumption is that benzo abuse isn’t an issue. The truth is that while benzodiazepines are extremely effective at treating specific conditions, regular use of this type of drug has the potential for abuse. The abuse potential of benzodiazepines is widely recognized and is usually incorporated in some form into the treatment protocol in the first place. Here are some facts about benzo abuse:
- Short-Term Treatment – Benzodiazepines are meant for short-term treatments. Although you may have heard of individuals receiving prescriptions for benzodiazepines like Xanax on an ongoing basis, this may be misleading. Most ongoing prescriptions for benzodiazepines are for specific conditions and are meant to be taken “as needed”. For example, if a patient suffers from panic attacks, a doctor may prescribe Xanax to be taken at the onset of a panic attack. So, while the prescription may be extended for months or even years, the intention is that the benzodiazepine is only taken intermittently.
- Fast-Acting Benzos – For the purposes of this article, we’ll outline two broad categories of benzodiazepines. Benzos with a short half-life are broken down by the body faster, but also interact with the central nervous system more powerfully and produce an effect with rapid onset. Other benzos have a longer half-life, less of an immediate effect, and are used to treat ongoing issues. Benzos with a short half-life have a higher potential for abuse, due to their fast and powerful onset of effects. The most popular benzodiazepine today, Xanax, falls into this category. The way that Xanax interacts with the body makes it more effective for treating panic attacks, but also makes it more likely to be abused.
- Toxicity – An interesting thing about benzodiazepines is that their widespread adoption is partially due to their relatively low toxicity. Benzodiazepines have largely replaced the use of barbiturates, which also have a sedative effect. One of the differences between these two types of drugs is that benzodiazepines have lower toxicity, making even large doses less likely to be fatal. Most deaths associated with benzodiazepines stem from mixing them with other substances such as alcohol. Once mixed with other drugs or alcohol, benzodiazepines like Xanax can quickly become deadly.
- Availability – A contributing factor to the prevalence of benzodiazepine abuse is their wide availability. Benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed in the United States to treat a number of conditions. This means that the supply of benzodiazepines is relatively high, making benzos both accessible and affordable.
Although we are examining the abuse of benzodiazepines, it should be kept in mind that tens of millions of individuals in the United States have valid prescriptions for benzodiazepines. Their continued use stems from their effectiveness at treating certain conditions. That effectiveness should not be discounted or demonized. At the same time, it is important to recognize both the signs of benzodiazepine abuse and the dangers associated with it. Doing so may allow you to catch benzodiazepine abuse early on.
Short-Term Side Effects
Benzodiazepines are primarily prescribed for their sedative properties, and it is from these sedative properties that the majority of the short-term side effects stem from. If you are wondering “what are side effects of benzodiazepine abuse?”, you will want to start with the short-term side effects. Individuals taking benzodiazepines must be especially careful not to change their dose or consume other drugs or alcohol. If they do, they run the risk of incurring significant side effects. Let’s take a look at some of the most common short-term side effects associated with benzodiazepines:
- Blurred vision
- Muscle weakness
- Poor coordination
- Slowed reaction time
- Uneven or awkward gait (Ataxia)
- Difficulty remembering events
Clearly, the short-term side effects associated with benzodiazepine abuse have dangerous implications. This is particularly true if individuals operate machinery such as a motor vehicle. Individuals on benzodiazepines may not realize the extent to which their motor functions are depressed. Slow reaction time and poor coordination can result in extreme danger when operating a vehicle. Vehicles aren’t the only source of danger associated with benzodiazepine short-term side effects. There is a significant risk of falling injuries associated with these side-effects. This can be particularly problematic for older individuals. Along with the danger of falling, the side effects of benzos can make even simple tasks more difficult or dangerous. When combined with alcohol or other drugs, benzo side effects become even more pronounced. For example, individuals that consume benzos and alcohol in large quantities may have large gaps in their memory, or may not be able to accurately account for their whereabouts during extended periods of time.
Long-Term Side Effects
If you are wondering “what are the side effects of benzodiazepine abuse?”, an important component of the conversation must revolve around the long-term effects of benzodiazepine abuse. First, understand that all of the short-term side effects that we outlined in the previous section can occur at any time that someone is using benzodiazepines. Things like poor coordination, memory impairment, or muscle weakness can still happen for individuals that use benzos over a long period of time. That being said, the following side effects associated with long-term benzo abuse are extremely challenging for most people to deal with.
- Depression – Extended use of benzodiazepines can result in depression. This depression can be severe, and in some cases leads to suicidal thoughts. The exact mechanism through which benzodiazepines can lead to depression isn’t completely understood, however, symptoms of depression can occur even in individuals that are using benzodiazepines at therapeutic levels over longer periods of time.
- Tolerance – Just like many other drugs, a side effect of taking benzodiazepines for long periods of time is that users will build up a tolerance to the drug’s effect. This tolerance has a number of different impacts. Foremost among these is the fact that individuals must take more of the drug each time to achieve the same effect. Eventually, doses can reach dangerous levels. Along with a higher tolerance comes a greater need to continue using benzodiazepines at high levels. This is because the onset of withdrawal symptoms will be more rapid and powerful in individuals whose body’s have developed a high tolerance for the drug.
- Dependence – The use of benzos over an extended period of time often results in the development of chemical dependence on the drug. The abuse potential of benzodiazepines is well known in the medical community, and it is for this reason that many benzos are only prescribed for treatment windows of 2-4 weeks. Outside of this window, individuals run the risk of developing a strong dependence on the drug. For individuals who have been abusing benzodiazepines over long periods of time, dependence on the drug is almost certain to take place.
The Impact of Benzodiazepine Abuse on Others
One of the challenges in outlining the side effects of benzodiazepine abuse is that it is too easy to focus solely on the clinical side effects of drug abuse. By doing this we obscure the many ways that benzo abuse can affect the lives of those around the addict. Given the unique nature of every benzodiazepine addiction, there is no simple answer to how abuse of benzos affects the lives of others. Benzodiazepine abuse can lead to a variety of different negative outcomes in the personal lives of the addict themselves. Individuals that abuse benzodiazepines may not be physically or emotionally present for their loved ones on a regular basis. While under the influence of benzos they may not be productive at work or be a positive and stable influence in the family. Individuals that abuse benzos over a long period of time may have difficulty holding down a job, introducing economic insecurity to the lives of those closest to them. The truth is, no one can really know how difficult it is to live with someone who is abusing benzos. While it may be difficult, the most important thing loved ones and family members can do is get the individual struggling with benzodiazepine abuse the help they need as soon as possible. To learn about benzo detox timeline, visit here.
While many of the short-term side effects of benzodiazepine abuse can be immediately dangerous, the long-term side effects are often the most difficult for individuals to deal with. The dangerous of long-term benzodiazepine abuse are numerous. However, one thing that should be highlighted above all else is the fact that quitting benzos suddenly can be fatal. Benzodiazepines are extremely dangerous to quit if it isn’t done in a controlled setting and with a treatment plan in place. Beyond the physical dangers of quitting benzodiazepines suddenly, stopping the use of benzos can produce a variety of withdrawal symptoms, including intense cravings. Cravings can last for months or even years, so it is important for recovering addicts to learn the skills and techniques that allow them to be more resilient in the face of those cravings. In order to give you or your loved one the best chance for a successful recovery from benzodiazepines, it is important to recognize exactly what benzodiazepine withdrawal looks like, what the dangers of it are, and how long it takes. Individuals who have been abusing benzodiazepines should consult with a medical professional prior to quitting their use, and should have a comprehensive treatment plan in place for when they do decide to quit. Quitting benzos in a controlled setting will give you or your loved on the best chance for a successful recovery. To find out more about how to get treatment for benzodiazepine abuse and begin your benzo detox, please contact Apex Recovery today.
- Reyes, Carolina F., and Armando L. Soto. Benzodiazepine : Abuse & Therapeutic Uses, Pharmacology & Health Effects. Pharmacology-Research, Safety Testing, and Regulation Series. Hauppauge, N.Y.: Nova Science Publishers, Inc, 2012.