Anti-Anxiety Meds Raise Risk of Opioid Overdose

By Pat Anson, Editor

Taking opioid painkillers with benzodiazepines – a class of anti-anxiety medication that includes Xanax and Valium – significantly raises the risk of an emergency room visit or hospital admission for an overdose, according to a large new study.

Opioids and benzodiazepines are both central nervous system depressants that can cause sleepiness, respiratory depression, coma and death. Nearly 30% of fatal overdoses in the U.S. linked to opioids also involve benzodiazepines.

Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine analyzed private insurance claims for over 315,000 people prescribed opioids from 2001 to 2013.

In 2001, they found that 9 percent of opioid users also received a prescription for a benzodiazepine. By 2013, the co-prescribing rate nearly doubled to 17 percent.

Their study, published in The BMJ, found that use of both drugs was associated with a substantially higher risk of an emergency room visit or inpatient admission for opioid overdose.

“We found that opioid users who concurrently used benzodiazepines were at an increased risk of opioid overdose and that eliminating concurrent benzodiazepine/opioid use could reduce the risk of opioid overdose by 15%,” wrote lead author Eric Sun, MD, an assistant professor at Stanford University School of Medicine.

“Providers should exercise caution in prescribing opioids for patients who are already using benzodiazepines (or vice versa), even in a non-chronic setting. Indeed, we note that the association between concurrent benzodiazepine/opioid use and the risk of opioid overdose was broadly similar for both intermittent and chronic opioid users.”

The Food and Drug Administration recently expanded the warning labels on opioids and sedatives because of the risk of overdose. Insurance companies are also actively discouraging doctors from prescribing the two together..

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked Xanax (alprazolam) as the fourth deadliest drug in the United States, while Valium (diazepam) was ranked tenth. Xanax was involved in about a quarter of the overdoses involving opioid pain medication.