‘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.


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.

Roger Chriss.jpg

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.

Chronic Pain and Depression Common in Overdoses

By Pat Anson, Editor

People who die from opioid overdoses are significantly more likely to suffer from chronic pain and depression, according to a new study that highlights the risk of combining opioid pain relievers with benzodiazepines, a class of anti-anxiety medication.

Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center analyzed over 13,000 overdose deaths among Medicaid patients and found that over 61 percent had been diagnosed with back pain, headaches or some other chronic pain condition. Many also suffered from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other mental health problems.

Significantly, nearly half of those with chronic pain (49%) filled a prescription for opioid pain medication during the last 30 days of their lives, and just over half (52%) filled a prescription for benzodiazepines. Prescriptions for anti-depressants, anti-psychotics and mood stabilizers were also common.

“This medication combination is known to increase the risk of respiratory depression, which is the unusually slow and shallow breathing that is the primary cause of death in most fatal opioid overdoses," said Mark Olfson, MD, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia and lead investigator of the study.


“Most persons with opioid-related fatalities were diagnosed with one or more chronic pain condition in the last year of life. As compared to people with opioid-related deaths without diagnosed chronic pain conditions, the decedents with chronic pain diagnoses were more likely to have also received substance use and other mental health disorder diagnoses. They were also more likely to have filled prescriptions for opioids, benzodiazepines, and other psychotropic medications and to have had a nonfatal drug overdose.”

The Columbia study included opioid overdoses linked to both pain medication and illegal opioids such as heroin, but was limited to Medicaid patients who died between 2001 and 2007. Since that time, opioid prescribing has declined, while illegal opioids and counterfeit medication have become increasingly available on the black market.

Public health officials have only recently started warning about the risks of combining opioids with benzodiazepines, and some insurers now refuse to pay for the medications when they are prescribed jointly.

A recent study of overdose deaths in Florida found that benzodiazepines such as Xanax and Valium killed nearly twice as many Floridians in 2016 as oxycodone. Another study in Pennsylvania also found that overdose deaths involving benzodiazepines exceeded those from opioid painkillers.

The Columbia study was published online in the American Journal of Psychiatry. The study was funded by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the New York Psychiatric Institute.

Florida’s Deadliest Rx Drug is Not a Painkiller

By Pat Anson, Editor

A new report from Florida’s Medical Examiners Commission is debunking a popular myth about the overdose crisis.

The most deadly prescription drugs in the state are not opioid painkillers, but benzodiazepines – a class of anti-anxiety medication that includes Xanax (alprazolam) and Valium (diazepam).  Xanax alone killed more Floridians last year (813) than oxycodone (723).

The medical examiners analyzed toxicology and autopsy results for 11,910 people who died in Florida in 2016, noting not only what drugs were present at the time of death, but which drug actually caused the deaths.

The distinction is important and more accurate than the death certificate (ICD) codes often used by the CDC, which merely list the drugs that were present. Critics have long contended that CDC researchers cherry pick ICD data to inflate the number of deaths "involving" or "linked" to opioid medication, in some cases counting the same death twice.   


Florida made an effort to get the numbers right.

“Florida’s medical examiners were asked to distinguish between the drugs determined to be the cause of death and those drugs that were present in the body at the time of death. A drug is indicated as the cause of death only when, after examining all evidence, the autopsy, and toxicology results, the medical examiner determines the drug played a causal role in the death,” the report explains.  “A decedent often is found to have multiple drugs listed as present; these are drug occurrences and are not equivalent to deaths.”

The five drugs found most frequently in Florida overdoses were alcohol, benzodiazepines, cocaine, cannabinoids and morphine. The medical examiners noted that heroin rapidly metabolizes into morphine, which probably led to a substantial over-reporting of morphine-related deaths, as well as a significant under-reporting of heroin-related deaths.

Benzodiazepines also played a prominent role as the cause of death, finishing second behind cocaine as the drug most likely to kill someone.  Benzodiazepines were responsible for almost twice as many deaths in Florida in 2016 than oxycodone. Like opioids, benzodiazepines can slow respiration and cause someone to stop breathing if they take too many pills.


Source: Florida Medical Examiners Commission

As in other states, deaths caused by cocaine, heroin and illicit fentanyl have soared in Florida in recent years. In just one year, the number of overdose deaths there jumped 22 percent from 2015 to 2016.

"We don't talk about it much now there's the opioid crisis, but cocaine and alcohol are still a huge issue, there are still a lot of deaths due to those things," Florida addiction treatment director Dustin Perry told the Pensacola News Journal.

Florida is not an outlier. Several other states are also using toxicology reports to improve their analysis of drugs involved in overdose deaths and getting similar findings.  In Massachusetts, deaths linked to illicit fentanyl, benzodiazepines, heroin and cocaine vastly outnumber deaths involving opioid medication.  Prescription opioids were present in only 16 percent of the overdose deaths in Massachusetts during the second quarter of 2017.



Although it is becoming clear that many different types of drugs -- opioids and non-opioids -- are fueling the nation’s overdose crisis, politicians, the media and public health officials still insist on calling it an “opioid epidemic” or an “opioid crisis” -- diverting attention and resources away from other drugs that are just as dangerous when abused.  We never hear about a Xanax epidemic or a Valium crisis.

President Trump's opioid commission recognized the need to improve drug overdose data when it released its final report this month.

"The Commission recommends the Federal Government work with the states to develop and implement standardized rigorous drug testing procedures, forensic methods, and use of appropriate toxicology instrumentation in the investigation of drug-related deaths. We do not have sufficiently accurate and systematic data from medical examiners around the country to determine overdose deaths, both in their cause and the actual number of deaths,” the commission found.

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.