You may have heard this question before, but how many people do you know currently taking benzodiazepines? Because they are taken in pill form, odds are people all around you are taking them and you don’t know it. I would venture to guess two or three of your acquaintances are using this prescription medication.
This is part of our blog series on addictive drugs. But what exactly are benzodiazepines and are they addictive? Benzodiazepines are psychoactive drugs whose effects include acting as a sedative, hypnotic (sleep-inducing), anxiolytic (anti-anxiety), anticonvulsant, muscle relaxant and amnesic action. These properties make benzodiazepines useful in treating anxiety, insomnia, agitation, seizures, muscle spasms, alcohol withdrawal and as a premedication for medical or dental procedures.
Benzodiazepines are categorized as either short-, intermediate- or long-acting. Short- and intermediate-acting benzodiazepines are preferred for the treatment of insomnia; longer-acting benzodiazepines are recommended for the treatment of anxiety.
I can tell you from experience that I have known hundreds of alcoholics who give up alcohol and then become very addicted to benzodiazepines.
How addictive are they?
How about as addictive as tobacco and barbiturates? An article in The Lancet compared the harm and addiction of 20 drugs, using a scale from 0 to 3 (with three being the most addictive substances like heroin) for physical addiction, psychological addiction, and pleasure to create a mean score for addiction. Benzos scored 1.8 the same as two drugs previously mentioned in terms of physical addiction. Benzodiazepines scored a 2.1 for psychological dependence, more than amphetamines and barbiturates and just less than tobacco.
Chlordiazepoxide (Librium) was the first benzodiazepine produced. Diazepam (Valium) was the next to be developed and until the early 1980s this was the most widely prescribed tranquillizer in the world. Today, newer benzodiazepines such as alprazolam (Xanax) and lorazepam (Ativan) account for most tranquillizer prescriptions.
While they no doubt hold some medicinal value, they are highly addictive and should be used in only extreme cases, and then only the care and guidance of a doctor with a strong knowledge of your personal health history.