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What Is the Other Drug Epidemic?

Researchers say there is another drug epidemic in addition to opioids. Doctors are prescribing more benzodiazepines than ever for longer periods of time.
Worried senior man can not sleep. He is sitting on his bed with headache.

Much has been written about the epidemic of opioid drug misuse, overdose and death. With more than 130 people dying every day in this country as a result of opioid overdose, we all have a right to be alarmed. Within six years, the annual death toll is expected to rise to almost 82,000 (Chen et al, JAMA Network Open, Feb. 1, 2019). But another drug epidemic is flying under the radar, according to a different report in JAMA Network Open (Jan 25, 2019).

Benzodiazepines Are the Silent Drug Epidemic:

Prescriptions for benzodiazepine drugs such as alprazolam (Xanax), lorazepam (Ativan) and diazepam (Valium) have risen dramatically over the last dozen years (Agarwal & Landon, JAMA Network Open, Jan. 25, 2019). These medications are usually prescribed for anxiety or insomnia. However, the data show that primary care physicians are increasingly prescribing these drugs for back pain or other chronic pain. We have not seen evidence that benzos are effective for pain, however.

The Benzo Drug Epidemic–Not Only More But Longer:

These findings are worrisome. Not only are more people taking benzodiazepines, but patients are taking them for longer periods of time. Older people are especially susceptible to side effects. In particular, we worry that older individuals who take benzodiazepines for long periods of time may be more likely to develop dementia.

In general, benzos are best used for short periods of time. Over weeks or months, they tend to lose their effectiveness. In addition, people develop dependence which can make it very difficult to stop taking them. In fact, sudden withdrawal can sometimes be fatal. Overdose deaths related to benzodiazepines have also risen–almost eight-fold in the 21st century. That is another reason to be alarmed about the benzodiazepine drug epidemic.

The authors conclude:

“As we have seen with the opioid epidemic and in light of increasing death rates related to benzodiazepine overdose, addressing prescribing patterns may help curb the growing use of benzodiazepines.”

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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First of all, I think it is important to differentiate between addiction and dependence. These words are not interchangeable. Addiction refers to an individual centering their life around obtaining and using their drug of choice. They will go to any lengths to obtain it – stealing, cheating, lying, etc. Dependence merely refers to being unable to abruptly discontinue a particular medication.

Yes, it is likely that one will become dependent upon benzodiazepines if one uses them long-term. This does not mean that one will become an addict, however.

Secondly, many people are able to use benzodiazepines successfully for years without raising the dosage. Jean from IL in this thread talks about using 15 mg of temazepam for over a decade with positive results.

What we do not need is the federal government getting on another kick about some category of drug’s use being an “epidemic,” therefore justifying all sorts of restrictions on and interference with that use. Many people use controlled substances responsibly. (Benzodiazepines are Schedule IV drugs.) Let’s not penalize them because of those who do not.

I know that these medications that are abused are very effective and probably are the most effective for insomnia and anxiety. It seems difficult to obtain them if they even suspect you might abuse them. A lot of times those suspicions are just that–

My wife was put on Clonazepam more than 20 years ago. As it became less effective, the dosage quickly climbed from 1 to 5 mg per day. It has taken her the last 7 years to taper down to 1 mg per day. This has not been easy, to put it mildly. This last milligram will likely take another 3 years to wean off this highly addictive drug.

I have taken 1/2 to one .25 mg Xanax at bedtime for about 10 years. It helps me fall asleep. I don’t take it all the time and certainly have not abused it, but I would not like to be without it as I have life issues that cause me great anxiety. Is that addiction? I don’t think so. One doctor I saw refused to prescribe it, even though I explained my usage history. She acted like it was the worst drug in the world, but wanted to prescribe clonazepam instead!!! I quickly changed doctors, again!

I have recurring vertigo. Nothing but Diazepam (Valium) helps. 5 Mg twice a day for a few days ends it. Then I’m all right for a month or so. Those of us that need the meds, and aren’t addicts, should not be paying the unhealthy price of doing without because of addicts.

If I may ask to Jow in NC, why is it taking so long? My grandmother tapered off ten milligrams of Xanax in a year. Could the time be making it more difficult? I by no means mean this as judgmental – quite the opposite. There is hope!

I used to have pain and panic attacks. At one time I took Xanax. My goal is to not be on any pharmaceuticals. I did some research and as a result I got off the Xanax. I now take about 800mg of Magnesium daily. When I am really stressed or anxious I take GABA 750 mg x 2. 5-HTP is also good.

Our food is sorely deficient in nutrients that we all need to function, and often many “diseases” are because of this. Do your own research, and get the best brands as well. Not all supplements are equal. Most Americans are sorely deficient in basic minerals. The Magnesium also fixed my atrial fibrillation. There is a good book on this written a while back called The Mood Cure by Julia Ross.

For me and many others benzos are a complete nightmare. I took them briefly (approx. 4 weeks) in 2002 for severe insomnia and anxiety. They did not help much, and when I attempted to stop all hell broke loose. I could not get off. I found support with an online benzo group and switched to longer acting valium. With the help of the support group I was able to taper off over a period of 2 years. What I went through was living hell, and I do not recommend these drugs unless they are absolutely necessary and saving a life. They are one of the most addictive substances on the planet.

Not all people are alike, and not all become addicted. Perhaps dependent, but not addicted to Benzo’s. I liken it to having diabetes and becoming dependent on insulin – one is dependent, but not addicted, and Benzos can be used for conditions that can be life-threatening if not used, not suicide, but diseases, such as users of Insulin. The government is systematically eliminating medications that have worked well for many, and in my opinion usage needs to be evaluated on an individual basis, not the collective whole of the population. Some abuse, many do not. I am tired of government/medical interference with medications that work for people, and it is the job of MDs and others to cull out those who are abusers.

My doctor, having read of the evils of benzos, determined to wean me off the Temazepam 15mg for sleep. I’d taken it for more than a decade with no side effects. After trials with eight mostly (minimal dose) antidepressants, I had a massive reaction to half tablets of Mirtazapine 7.5mg. The rash that covered all but my face and chest turned into a massive painful, oozing skin infection after five days of no sleep. I was bedridden for a month and have been off my feet for nearly two more. It is still painful to stand.

Myself included, with anxiety/panic. From a very young age, I mean 6-8 yr old onset, I had genetic markers for anxiety and panic attacks and didn’t know the cause. So after childhood, as soon as I had control of my life, off to the drug store and doctor I went. Thanks to genetic testing I found I was severely deficient in critical nutrients to assist in my getting anxiety under control. Also, after such a prolonged anxious state I had to relearn to self-talk, because I would get anxious before any situation ever occured. Hope this helps someone. Thanks, everyone, for sharing.

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