Benzodiazepine medications, which include such popular drugs as Xanax, Valium, and Klonopin, can be highly effective for short-term relief against anxiety, insomnia, muscle spasms, or seizures. But when used for long periods or for their euphoric effects, these drugs are addictive and can cause many frightening side effects. People who abuse benzodiazepines may need treatment to help them overcome their addictions, but treatment for benzodiazepine abuse is generally quite effective.
Benzodiazepines are a form of tranquilizer and one of the most widely prescribed drugs in the tranquiller category. They are sold under several familiar and popular brand names, such as Xanax, Ativan, Valium, and Klonopin. Benzodiazepines are used to treat a variety of medical conditions, including anxiety disorders, insomnia, muscle spasms, seizures, and alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
Even when taken as prescribed, benzodiazepines can cause a number of disturbing side effects. They can also be highly addictive, and that is why they are recommended only for short-term usage.
Unfortunately, benzodiazepines are abused frequently because of their capacity to relieve discomfort and produce pleasant feelings, which is a testament to their effectiveness and potency.
Benzodiazepine abuse is a serious medical condition that can have devastating long-term implications, and anyone who misuses these powerful drugs is risking their health and their future.
How and Why Are Benzodiazepines Abused?
Benzodiazepine drugs are sedatives that suppress excessive activity in the central nervous system. They enhance the effectiveness in the brain of a neurotransmitter known as GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which produces feelings of deep, profound calm and relaxation when it is available in abundance. There is a euphoric aspect to the feelings caused by the consumption of benzodiazepines, and while these effects are not as intense as those produced by other drugs they are pleasant enough to encourage recreational use or abuse.
Many people do abuse benzodiazepines for their pleasure-inducing effects, but seldom are these drugs used exclusively for this reason. Instead, they are usually combined with other drugs that suppress central nervous system activity, especially alcohol, opiates, and marijuana, as a way to boost the impact of these other drugs. Most people who overdose on benzodiazepines, or develop a benzodiazepine dependency, abuse other drugs simultaneously—and it is the mixture of these intoxicating substances that causes most of the danger.
Even without other drugs, however, benzodiazepines are highly effective as a sedative and muscle relaxant, and that can encourage abuse among those who start out using these drugs with a prescription and to treat legitimate medical conditions. People don’t see the harm in continuing to use drugs they know will work, but they don’t realize how quickly an addiction can develop when powerful pharmaceutical medicines are overused.
Signs and Symptoms of Benzodiazepine Abuse
It is relatively easy for people to abuse pharmaceutical drugs in secret, once they’ve obtained one or more prescriptions. Recreational abuse can also be difficult to detect, since benzodiazepine side effects may be similar to those caused by alcohol abuse or other types of drug use.
Nevertheless, chronic and heavy use of benzodiazepines will eventually produce detectable signs and symptoms, recognizable to those who are paying attention and know what to look for.
The characteristic symptoms of benzodiazepine abuse include:
- Persistent drowsiness
- Falling asleep at odd times or in unusual places
- Dizziness, lightheadedness
- Slurred speech
- Blurry vision
- Muscle weakness
- Slower reflexes and reaction times
- Loss of coordination
- Mental confusion
- Respiratory difficulties
These are all signs of someone under the influence of a central nervous system depressant, and if the person in question has been using benzodiazepines they should be considered a very likely suspect.
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Consequences of Benzodiazepine Abuse
The direct effects of benzodiazepine abuse will escalate in intensity over time, and eventually those who misuse the drug will experience other consequences, including physical and mental health problems, and behavioral patterns that are both unproductive and self-destructive.
The long-term health complications of benzodiazepine abuse may include:
- Gastrointestinal distress
- Musculoskeletal problems
- Chronic fatigue
- Difficulties with memory and concentration
- Hyperactivity or overaggressive behavior
- Changes in appetite, leading to weight gain or loss
- Growing tolerance for the drug
- Withdrawal symptoms or cravings experienced during attempts to stop using the medications
- Benzodiazepine dependency
- Additional problems with substance abuse and drug dependency, possibly involving alcohol, marijuana, and/or opiate medications (other nervous system depressants that are frequently misused along with benzodiazepines)
- Permanent brain damage
Benzodiazepines are highly potent and highly addictive, and that is why they are normally prescribed for short-term use only. Whether the person abusing these medications is doing so for recreational purposes or to combat anxiety, insomnia, or other health problems the drugs were originally prescribed for, continued use of benzodiazepines is synonymous with abuse and will inevitably cause significant life and health complications.
Beyond their physical, emotional, and psychological effects, these potent medications can alter behavior in negative and damaging ways. The behavioral consequences of benzodiazepine abuse include:
- Poor performance on the job or in school
- Frequent tardiness or absences from school or work
- Greater vulnerability to accidents and physical injury
- More impulsive and risky behavior
- Neglect of relationships, including a lack of proper care for dependent children
- Reclusiveness, social isolation
- Powerful and sudden mood swings
- Financial losses, possibly because of gambling or unemployment
- Encounters with law enforcement (for driving under the influence, theft of drugs or the money to buy them, arrests for buying or selling drugs illegally, etc.)
People who abuse drugs of any type do their best to hide the truth from family, friends, and their employers, but their self-sabotaging behavior will soon give them away.
The Dangers of Benzodiazepine Overdose
When people abuse benzodiazepines for their mind-altering capacities, as time passes they will need to take more and more of the drugs to achieve the same effects, and it is this behavior that can ultimately lead to dependency.
But increased risk for overdose is another consequence of benzodiazepine abuse, and if alcohol or other drugs are abused simultaneously the hazards are even greater.
Because benzodiazepines are sedatives, the initial stages of an overdose can be difficult to identify. People who take these drugs expect to feel more relaxed and aren’t likely to notice at first if the symptoms they experience are stronger than usual. But as the symptoms of overdose continue to develop, it should be obvious the person is in distress and in need of assistance.
The signs of a serious benzodiazepine overdose include:
- Loss of equilibrium and coordination
- Severe dizziness
- Deep confusion and disorientation
- Extreme agitation
- Odd speech or behavior
- Very low blood pressure
- Respiratory depression
- Loss of consciousness
Anyone exhibiting the symptoms of a benzodiazepine overdose needs immediate medical attention. While benzodiazepine abuse is seldom responsible for fatal drug overdoses by itself, when it is combined with alcohol or other prescription medications a tragic outcome is possible.
Getting Help for Benzodiazepine Abuse
People who abuse benzodiazepines for an extended period can easily develop dependency, and powerful withdrawal symptoms may be experienced if the drug use is discontinued suddenly. Consequently, supervised medical detox is often recommended for people who’ve been abusing benzodiazepines.
During detox, patients are monitored 24 hours a day in a fully staffed and supplied medical facility, to ensure a smooth, safe, and sustainable withdrawal from the drugs they’ve become dependent upon. If a person has been abusing both benzodiazepines and alcohol this process may be especially delicate, since the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can be extremely intense and possibly even dangerous.
Once detox is complete, people who’ve been abusing benzodiazepines will likely need treatment for drug dependency, either on an inpatient or outpatient basis. The level and intensity of the addiction will help determine how extensive and long-lasting the treatment program will be, and residential treatment centers are fully prepared to offer customized rehab plans that will meet the specific needs of each individual patient.
Psychotherapy will be the centerpiece of any benzodiazepine treatment plan, and individual, group, and family therapy sessions will be provided to help those struggling with benzodiazepine dependency come to grips with their situations, and the effect of their behavior on themselves and their loved ones. Holistic healing practices and classes that teach life skills and coping strategies will likely also be offered, and if co-occurring mental health disorders or substance use disorders have been diagnosed their symptoms will also be fully addressed during treatment.
Once a benzodiazepine dependency has developed, full sobriety is the only acceptable remedy. People who’ve abused these drugs will continue receiving therapy in aftercare, which may continue for several months to reduce the risk of relapse.
Benzodiazepine abuse can easily lead to addiction, and possibly to a life-threatening overdose if it is used in combination with other drugs. Benzodiazepines are potent substances and should always be used with caution, since irresponsible practices can easily lead to catastrophic results.