Benzodiazepines: The Hidden Epidemic

In the United States, the dire words “overdose death” are most commonly associated with prescription opioids and heroin. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 78 Americans lose their life every day from an opioid overdose death, 44 of which are caused by prescription painkillers. While lawmakers continue to be proactive in finding effective ways to combat the epidemic, there is another class of drugs that has been quietly cutting people’s lives short.

Opioids take more lives every year than any other drug, but benzodiazepines (“benzos”) on top of being highly addictive – are the second most deadly drugs and reports about overdoses linked to that family of drugs have been minimal to say the least. In fact, new research indicates that overdose deaths linked to anti-anxiety medications have skyrocketed, CNN reports. The findings were published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Benzodiazepines, such as Valium (diazepam) or Xanax (alprazolam) were involved in about 30 percent of overdose deaths in 2013, according to the CDC. The researchers involved in the new study believed that all the attention given to the opioid epidemic, and the subsequent curtailing of prescribing of painkillers, would have resulted in a reduction in benzodiazepine prescriptions, the article reports. However, when study lead author Dr. Marcus A. Bachhuber, assistant professor of medicine at Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and colleagues analyzed data from national surveys of U.S. households taken between 1996 and 2013 they found something completely different.

Bachhuber’s team found that benzodiazepine related overdose deaths more than quadrupled between 1999 and 2010, according to the article. Between 1996 and 2013 benzodiazepine prescriptions per year jumped by about 30 percent – from 4.1 percent to 5.6 percent.

It is worth mentioning that benzos are often prescribed in tandem with prescription opioids. What’s more, many patients prescribed both types of drugs are unaware that when anti-anxiety sedatives are mixed with opioids, the risk of overdose is amplified significantly. A study was published last year which found that 75 percent of overdose deaths that involved benzodiazepines also involved opioids.

“The risk of overdose and death from benzodiazepines themselves is generally low-to-moderate in otherwise healthy adults,” said Dr. Gary Reisfield, professor of psychiatry at the University of Florida. However, Reisfield points out that when sedatives are mixed with opioids or alcohol, “their lethality is magnified.”

If you are currently struggling with benzodiazepine addiction, please contact Family Recovery Specialists. Breaking free from such drugs can be especially dangerous, and requires a medically supervised detox. After which, we can help you begin the journey of recovery.

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