Benzodiazepines are a class of medications, commonly called tranquilizers, which chiefly depress or slow down the central nervous system, causing sleep, partial loss of consciousness or reduced nervousness.
They are widely used to treat anxiety, stress, panic disorders, insomnia and seizures. They also have other medical uses, such as treating depression, reducing alcohol withdrawal symptoms, easing nausea or as a muscle relaxant.
In general, when prescribed for short-term use, benzodiazepines are considered to be safe and effective medications, but they do carry potential side effects and a high risk of addiction.
Common Benzodiazepines and Their Uses
More than 2,000 benzodiazepines have been produced since they were first accidentally discovered in 1955. In the United States, the FDA has approved only fifteen different benzodiazepines for use.
The various drugs in this class are distinguished by how quickly they affect the user, the duration of the effects and the particular symptoms they are used to treat. The list below provides the generic and trade names of some common benzodiazepines, along with a brief description of their use and effective duration:
- Alprazolam (Xanax) – primarily used to treat anxiety disorders; effects last from five to 20 hours
- Chlordiazepoxide (Librium) – used to treat anxiety disorders and for alcohol withdrawal; effects last from one to three days
- Clonazepam (Klonopin) – used to treat seizures; works for one to three days
- Diazepam (Valium) – used to treat anxiety disorders and seizures, also prescribed as a muscle relaxant; effects start quickly and continue for one to three days
- Lorazepam (Ativan) – used to treat seizures and also as an anesthesia; effects last from 11 to 20 hours
- Midazolam (Versed) – used to treat anxiety disorders and as an anesthesia; short-acting with an effect of three to eight hours
- Triazolam (Halcion) – used to treat insomnia and other sleep disorders; effective for three to eight hours,/li>
Sides Effects and Risks of Benzodiazepines
Benzodiazepines are useful for treating diverse symptoms and conditions, but they can also produce adverse side effects. Some commonly reported problems are:
- Next day drowsiness – creates an unwanted mental fog or hangover effect
- Motor skill impairment – lack of coordination results in difficulties or dangers with daily activities, such as driving
- Memory Impairment – inability to remember new information, known as anterograde amnesia
- Impaired cognition – decreased thinking and reasoning abilities, particularly seen with long-term use
- Aggressive Behavior – irritability, agitation or hostility
- Allergic reaction – potentially serious responses, including anaphylaxis and angioedema (swelling under the skin)
In addition to these unpleasant and dangerous side effects, benzodiazepines carry heightened risks for tolerance and dependence, which can lead easily to abuse or addiction. When combined with alcohol, other sedatives or illicit drugs, the dangers of overdose and fatal consequences are greatly increased.
Withdrawal symptoms for benzodiazepine addiction are also quite debilitating. Even after only a few months of regular use, stopping the medication can produce intense feelings of insecurity and irritability, along with a rebound effect of sleeplessness. After longer periods, stopping benzodiazepine use can lead to muscle cramps, blurred vision, vomiting, hallucination and even seizures.
Avoiding Benzodiazepine Addiction
As with many prescription drug addictions, the patient often begins with a legitimate need or concern that’s addressed by the medication. Since benzodiazepine drugs carry such a high risk of addiction, it is important to consider other options before beginning their use.
For example, both anxiety and insomnia are conditions often caused by daily stress or acute events with normally temporary effects. Both of these can be effectively treated with non-drug options, such as cognitive behavior therapy, yoga or meditation practices.
If your symptoms don’t respond well to such non-drug approaches, speak with your doctor about other options. If together you decide to use benzodiazepines, following these four guidelines can help reduce your risk for dependence and addiction:
- Short-term use – Benzodiazepines are recommended for short-term use, ideally for less than four weeks.
- Occasional use – Try not to use benzodiazepines every day. Instead use for a couple days or nights and then wait for another day or two before taking more.
- Monitor dosage – Be very aware of your need for higher doses to get the same effect. That indicates you’re developing a tolerance and could be headed toward addiction.
- Taper Use – If you’ve been on a benzodiazepine medication for more than three months, you must not stop cold turkey. Under supervision of your doctor, you will need to gradually taper use to avoid withdrawal symptoms.