Long-Term Effects of Benzodiazepine Abuse
Benzodiazepines are prescription drugs that can be useful and safe for short-term, intermittent help of anxiety. They have never been intended for long-term use. Taking these drugs daily for more than a month is considered misuse and can lead to significant issues: addiction, overdose, cognitive impairment, mood changes, and insomnia. It’s important to only use these drugs as directed and to get professional help if you have been misusing your benzodiazepine.
Benzodiazepines are sedatives and central nervous system depressants. They relax activity in the brain to treat anxiety disorder and panic attacks. They are prescription drugs, and because they are habit-forming, benzodiazepines are listed as schedule IV controlled substances.
When used as directed by a doctor, benzodiazepines like Xanax, Valium, and Ativan can safely manage serious anxiety disorders. However, they are susceptible to abuse. Some people, either prescribed the drug or not, will abuse a benzodiazepine and may develop a substance use disorder. This can be dangerous and harmful to health, especially over the long-term.
Benzodiazepines are largely prescribed to treat anxiety disorders including panic disorder. They produce an immediate effect, which means that unlike antidepressants, patients can use them as needed. It’s not necessary to take these drugs for weeks to get results.
They are very effective at managing anxiety and related symptoms. Doctors may also prescribe benzodiazepines to manage insomnia, convulsive disorders, and muscle spasticity. They can be given to patients who are nervous about surgery, and to reduce withdrawal in people being treated for alcohol use disorder.
Benzodiazepines work by increasing the amount of GABA, a neurotransmitter, in the brain. GABA induces a sedative effect that makes the user feel relaxed, sleepy, and less nervous or stressed.
Benzodiazepine Misuse and Addiction
Benzodiazepines are largely considered to be safe, but they can be susceptible to abuse and be habit-forming. The correct way to use these drugs is for short-term relief and intermittently. They are not intended as a long-term fix for anxiety, both because of the risk of addiction and the long-term health effects.
Unfortunately, misuse of benzodiazepines is on the rise. According to a recent study, more than one in eight adults in the U.S. uses these drugs and 17 percent of that is misuse. People who misuse the drugs reported that they did so in order to relax, relieve tension, and sleep better.
Other research has found that in spite of the high rates of misuse, rates of benzodiazepine use disorder, or addiction, are low. Misuse of benzodiazepines includes using the drugs without a prescription and using a prescribed drug longer, more frequently, or in large doses than recommended.
The Harmful, Long-Term Effects of Benzodiazepines
While increasing rates of benzodiazepine misuse are not leading to high rates of addiction, there are still serious problems associated with this trend. Addiction may be a lower risk as compared to some other drugs, but long-term use and misuse of benzodiazepines can cause health problems.
Increased Risk of Short-Term Effects
Benzodiazepines are usually safe when used as directed, but there are some risks and side effects even with short-term use. Abusing these drugs over the long-term increases the chances of experiencing some of these harmful effects:
- Vehicle accidents due to driving while drowsy and sedated
- Hip fractures, especially in older adults
- Cognitive impairment
- Nausea and gastrointestinal problems
- Sexual dysfunction
- Changes in appetite and weight
Cognitive impairment is a short-term effect of benzodiazepines. Because they slow down brain activity, the drugs can impair memory, make it difficult to concentrate, and impede the ability to get tasks done. However, over long-term use, people may experience more frequent and severe issues with cognitive impairment.
Over time, use of benzodiazepines can make it more difficult to concentrate, pay attention, and focus on a task. Long-term misuse negatively impacts memory, motor function, and learning. These dysfunctions can improve over time with cessation of drug use, but the longer someone has been abusing the benzodiazepine, the greater the risk some changes will be permanent.
Some people take benzodiazepines, or misuse them, because they have difficulty sleeping. These drugs are not recommended as a long-term sleep aid. Use over time can actually worsen sleep and insomnia. While benzodiazepines may induce sleep more quickly, the quality of sleep is usually harmed by the drugs. They tend to decrease total sleep time and REM sleep and increase certain types of brain activity during sleep.
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Mood and Mental Health
Benzodiazepines may improve anxiety in the short-term, but over time they have a deleterious effect on mood. Long-term use is associated with depression, increased anxiety, and generally poorer moods. They can worsen existing mental health issues as well. This may lead to an increased risk for self-harm and suicide.
Withdrawal from substances is uncomfortable, but for most it is not dangerous. Benzodiazepines are exceptions. Withdrawal from a benzodiazepine can actually be dangerous and life-threatening. Even someone who has only been using benzodiazepines daily for a month is at risk for withdrawal syndrome. Symptoms include:
- Rebound anxiety and panic attacks
- Abnormal body sensations
- Severe agitation
- Nausea and vomiting
- Grand mal seizures
The seizures that withdrawal triggers can be fatal. This is the biggest risk associated with benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms. Long-term use can lead to withdrawal, which must be handled medically.
The Risk of Overdose
The longer someone misuses a drug, the greater the risk of overdose. Overdoses with benzodiazepines alone don’t often lead to death. The real risk is combining these drugs with other sedatives including opioids and alcohol. When used together, the effects are additive, increasing the risk of a fatal overdose.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 16 percent of opioid overdose deaths in 2019 involved benzodiazepines. It’s a growing problem. The more people use and misuse benzodiazepines, the greater the risk they will be combined with opioids. It’s possible to overdose the first time someone misuses a drug, but the risk increases with long-term abuse.
Getting Help for Benzodiazepine Abuse
Because there are so many risks and dangers of misusing these drugs, it is essential to seek professional help. Never try to stop using benzodiazepines on your own if you have been using them daily for an extended period of time. You may not feel addicted, but you could go through withdrawal, which is very dangerous.
A medical detox from these drugs is the first step to ending abuse. Then, you’ll need to go through a professional addiction recovery plan. A residential facility can help you dig into the underlying reasons you abused drugs. Trained mental health and addiction specialists will give you the tools you need to address those issues and manage your anxiety without benzodiazepines.
If you or someone you care about is misusing benzodiazepines, take it seriously. The risks and dangers are real and can even be fatal. Get the help you need to stop using safely, to recover from addiction, and to rebuild a healthy, happy life while managing anxiety in a better way.