There is a common belief that if a medical doctor prescribes a medication to someone, then it must be safe to use. Although this statement is generally true, doctors cannot exactly predict what side effects take place in each specific individual, (since everyone’s genes are so drastically different), which is why side effect lists tend to be so long. Many factors go into a doctor’s decisions in medication choices often taking into account a client’s age, illness, weight, height, other health conditions and medications, etc. when evaluating the risks and benefits associated with specific medication decisions. One type of drug in particular that has been found to be beneficial for many individuals goes by the general category name of benzodiazepine. This drug is more commonly known by brand names such as Ativan, Xanax, Klonopin, Valium and Restoril. According to a report on benzodiazepines by the American Psychiatric Association, (APA), 11 to 15 percent of the adult population in the United States has taken a benzodiazepine one or more times during the year 2017 alone. While benzodiazepines can have many positive benefits, they have the potential of being abused and at times, abusing benzos can result in fatal consequences.
Benzodiazepines are listed as among the top 100 most commonly prescribed medications, with Xanax, Klonopin, Valium and Ativan being the most well-known. Benzodiazepines are used to treat a range of health issues but are mainly prescribed for reducing anxiety, relaxing muscles, and inducing sleep. The effects of these drugs are produced almost immediately, which makes them perfect candidates for treating short-term, intermittent, “as-needed” symptoms, which are common in anxiety or panic disorders. Benzodiazepines basically work on the central nervous system and enhance the action of neurotransmitters such as Gamma Amino Butyric Acid, (GABA). GABA’s main function is to calm or slow down the central nervous system (inhibiter) and benzodiazepines increase the efficiency of this neurotransmitter and cause the body to experience heightened levels of inhibition or sedation. Although slowing down the central nervous system can be effective in an overly stimulated (anxious) person, what happens when the body is slowed down too much or after the anxiety producing situation has ended?
Addiction is common among benzodiazepine users, mostly due to its widespread availability and toxic effects that produce appealing sedative and relaxing qualities. Like many drugs, after some moderate term use, users build up a tolerance and require higher doses of the drug in order to produce the same desired effects. Benzodiazepines at high doses have similar effects that are produced by large amounts of alcohol such as drowsiness, over-sedation, sleep and potential toxic overdosing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in 2013 that more than 22,000 people in the United States died from overdoses due to prescription drugs (one of the most recent years with available prescription records). Benzodiazepines such as Valium and Xanax were involved in 31 percent of those deaths. These are just some of the statistics from benzodiazepines deaths directly. Many users tend to combine prescription drugs, such as mixing benzodiazepines with opioids, and can account for even more deaths and health risks including difficulty breathing, coma and death. Dr. David Juurlink, head of toxicology and clinical pharmacology at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center in Toronto stated, “Prescribing opioids and benzodiazepines together is like putting gasoline on a fire”, and “benzodiazepines are grossly prescribed and many people don’t necessarily benefit from them.” Users should be careful when starting to take benzodiazepines as they might cause more harm than they do good.
Like any other drug, benzodiazepines should be continually monitored, taken as prescribed, and as part of an ongoing conversation of their effectiveness with a doctor. Although there are some benefits to taking benzodiazepines, their effects can cause a lot more problems than they are worth. Addiction is a serious disease and has the potential of occurring when taking this drug, so if signs of addiction are starting to take form then talking to a doctor about treatment options for coming off of this substance might be a good idea. Treatment is available and just because a doctor prescribes something doesn’t make it guaranteed to be entirely safe.