Benzodiazepine Prescriptions on Dramatic and Alarming Rise

Benzodiazepines are a class of pharmaceutical drugs that act as sedatives.  They are often prescribed in conjunction with opioid (painkillers) to help people sleep or to control other conditions like anxiety and even seizures.  While these drugs—like any other—certainly have their benefits they are just as vulnerable to abuse as any other as well.  And new research shows that benzodiazepines are being implicated more and more in drug overdose-related deaths.

The study shows that long-term (continuous) use of these prescriptions have increased by 50 percent between 2005 and 2015.  And, much like other drugs, long-term use of benzodiazepines can lead to physical dependence and then addiction and eventually death from overdose. 

According to study author Sumit Agarwal, MD, “I don’t think people realize that benzodiazepines share many of the same characteristics of opioids.”

You may recognize this class of drugs by their commonly-used brand names:  Ativan, Valium, and Xanax.  

Existing studies indicate an eightfold increase in mortality rate from benzodiazepine overdose death.  Between 1999 to 2016, the benzodiazepine overdose death rate increased from 0.6 in 100,000 to 4.4.  Agarwal distills this down to an increase in benzodiazepine-related deaths between 10,000 and 12,000.  

Agarwal persists, definitively, “They are addictive. They cause you to have slower breathing; they cause you to be altered in terms of mental status. And then, eventually, [they] can cause overdose and deaths.”

Women are most likely to be prescribed these drugs, particularly those between the ages of 30 and 64. Actually, benzodiazepine prescription among this population increased by 830 percent between 1996 and 2017. Essentially, women are more likely to visit a clinic for treatment of anxiety and depression, and this is typically when a doctor prescribes a benzodiazepine.

The Brigham and Women’s Hospital internist and primary care physician goes on to say, “The pendulum has begun to swing in how we prescribe opioids, but we really need to be cautious in how we prescribe benzodiazepines too. Benzodiazepines are easy to start but hard to stop.”

Indeed, more and more researchers and doctors are waking up to the importance of recognizing the dangers associated with this drug: not only in its inherent risks, but in how prevalent the drug is on our society. With a growing opioid epidemic in the US, then, it is even more crucial to be cautious of overprescribing drugs that have high abuse and overdose risk. 

The results of this alarming study have been published in JAMA Network Open.