‘Benzo Crisis’ Keeps Not Happening

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

A new study published in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry has found that the misuse and abuse of benzodiazepine is relatively rare, even though the drug is sometimes hyped as the next overdose crisis in healthcare.

Benzodiazepines – often called “benzos” -- are a class of sedative that includes Valium and Xanax. The medications are usually prescribed to treat anxiety and insomnia.

Data on over 100,000 adults in the 2015-16 National Surveys on Drug Use and Health was analyzed by researchers, who found that benzodiazepines were used by 12.5% of American adults. Of those, about 17% “misused” the drug at least once, but only 2% had what was diagnosed as a benzodiazepine use disorder.

The study found several risk factors for benzo misuse, including younger age, male gender, lower levels of education, lack of health insurance or employment, and lower income levels — factors often associated with other substance use disorders.

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The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) recently reported that most misusers obtained benzodiazepines from friends or relatives, with only about 20% receiving them from their doctor.

These findings, both the statistics and the specific risks factors and usage patterns, run counter to inflammatory media headlines such as “Xanax, Valium looking like America's next drug crisis” or “Benzodiazepines: our other prescription drug epidemic.”  

Instead, benzodiazepines are better viewed as part of an ongoing problem of drug abuse and addiction that primarily occurs outside of medical care. They are a factor in many drug overdoses, partly because of increasing rates of counterfeit Xanax and Valium being contaminated with illicit fentanyl, and because overdose rates increase when benzodiazepines are combined with opioids or alcohol.

Until recently, benzodiazepines were commonly co-prescribed with opioids to chronic pain patients, a practice that is now strongly discouraged by regulators and insurers.

There are indeed risks with benzodiazepines, including not only sedation and somnolence, but also cognitive effects and worsening of psychiatric symptoms. Moreover, chronic benzodiazepine use can lead to physiologic dependence independent of any abuse or addiction, and this dependence can make tapering off benzodiazepines difficult. Benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome is sufficiently important to merit extensive treatment in the online guide known as the Ashton Manual.

But there are also benefits in using these drugs, even for long-term therapy. For instance, REM sleep behavior disorder is a sleep disorder in which people act out vivid, unpleasant dreams with violent arm and leg movements, often harming themselves or bed partners in the process. The benzodiazepine clonazepam (Klonopin) is the traditional choice for treatment for that. 

Stiff person syndrome is a rare neurological disorder involving intense muscle spasms in the limbs and trunk. The benzodiazepine diazepam (Valium) helps reduce those muscle spasms and stiffness.

There are also intriguing novel uses for benzodiazepines as well. Some researchers are investigating low-dose benzodiazepine therapy for people with treatment-resistant obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). This is not the cuddly version of OCD seen in TV shows like “Monk” but crippling dysfunction that renders a person incapable of leaving their bed for days at a stretch.

Benzodiazepines need careful consideration, but not a hyped crisis. In a reference to the opioid crisis, NIDA director Nora Volkow, MD, told Opioid Watch: “As always, science should be the driver of smart policies designed to reverse the course of this crisis.”

The same wisdom should be applied to all medications.

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Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.