What are the Health Risks of Benzodiazepine Abuse?

Benzodiazepines are a class of psychoactive drugs with anxiolytic, sedative, hypnotic, anticonvulsant, and muscle relaxing effects. They are often prescribed because of their ability to provide immediate relief from anxiety and panic attacks. Benzodiazepines work by triggering tranquilizing chemicals, such as GABA, in the brain, which can be extremely helpful in preventing panic attacks, prolonged epileptic seizures, and easing the symptoms of severe alcohol withdrawal. Benzodiazepines, however, are highly addictive and carry a high potential for abuse, which can lead to severe health consequences.
Benzodiazepines can be short-, intermediate-, or long-acting in effects. They act on the central nervous system and can produce a variety of negative health symptoms. High doses of benzodiazepines can lead to drowsiness, confusion, dizziness, blurred vision, weakness, slurred speech, loss of coordination, respiratory depression, and coma. Dr. Christopher Lane, in a 2012 Psychology Today article entitled The Tranquilizer Trap, reports that one patient taking benzodiazepines explained: “The worst symptom is an excruciating burning sensation as if my nervous system has been attached to an electric socket, sending piercing pain along my spine and to the ends of my fingers and toes.” Another explained: “I was heavily sedated and near-catatonic at my wedding, but tic-free.”  Symptoms become more pronounced and more dangerous when benzodiazepines are mixed with alcohol or other drugs. Medical News Today reports, “Benzodiazepine overdose is rarely fatal unless the drugs are mixed with barbiturates, opioids, alcohol, or tricyclic antidepressants. The most common symptoms of benzodiazepine overdose are central nervous system depression and intoxication with impaired balance and movement control. Slurred speech will also be a sign.” It has also been reported that benzodiazepine users are at greater risk for developing neurological problems such as dementia.
Benzodiazepines cause major physical changes to the brain, leading to tolerance and addiction. WebMD explains, “Despite their many helpful uses, benzodiazepines can lead to physical and psychological dependence. Dependence can result in withdrawal symptoms and even seizures when they are stopped abruptly. Dependence and withdrawal occur in only a very small percentage of people taking normal doses for short periods. The symptoms of withdrawal can be difficult to distinguish from anxiety. Symptoms usually develop at 3-4 days from last use, although they can appear earlier with shorter-acting varieties.” It is extremely dangerous for an individual to quit taking the drug “cold turkey.” Medical intervention and supervision is necessary if an individual wants to detox because immediate cessation can cause potentially lethal seizures.

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