In the midst of the often-discussed drug epidemic, people around the world are giving opioid use and addiction a lot of much-needed attention. Medical professionals have been criticized for prescribing opioids as second nature to treat chronic pain, and patients are becoming increasingly wary of the addictive nature of opioids and how misusing them can lead to heroin use.

Prioritizing opioid use as a major health issue is not misguided. Prescription opioids are attributed to thousands of deaths each year. As the body count rises, consistent discussion and attention given to the use of these drugs and their connection to dangerous street drugs is a positive step toward reducing the death toll.

The attention is working. According to The New York Times, prescriptions for opioid medications have been dropping each year since 2011. That trend continued from 2017 to 2018, with a 10-percent decrease, a potential sign that increased awareness of the dangers of opioids has been enough of a deterrent to using the drug.

However, there are other prescription drugs besides opioids that are contributing to the drug woes of this country. Benzodiazepines, specifically, are quietly becoming a significant part of the current epidemic.

Is Benzodiazepine Use the Next Drug Epidemic?

Benzos, which include well-known medications XanaxValiumAtivan and Klonopin, could soon join opioids as one of the most significant issues in the U.S. involving the use of prescription drugs. The drugs are commonly used to treat anxiety, sleeping issues and other mental health disorders.

They can also be taken for recreational purposes and can lead to severe consequences, up to and including death. 

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH) reported 8,791 overdose deaths in 2015 involving benzodiazepines. This is an increase in more than 7,600 overdose deaths since 1999 when there were just 1,135 caused by the drug class. Such a significant increase in the number of deaths should raise alarm throughout the U.S.

Yet, many people continue to view benzodiazepine use as less troublesome than that of opioids. The Recovery Villageconducted a survey of 399 people regarding the use of benzos, how the use of these drugs compare to other prescription drug classes like opioids and stimulants, and how concerned people are about benzodiazepine use. The results show that benzodiazepines could soon become a major health risk in the U.S.

Why have benzos been an afterthought compared to opioids, though? And is that beginning to change?

Rising Death Toll: How Benzo Use Has Changed

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that opioids, which includes illegal drugs like heroin and prescription medication such as codeine and oxycodone, were responsible for 42,000 deaths in 2016.

However, the number of deaths caused by benzodiazepines has also dramatically increased since the turn of the century. Yet, saying the word “opioids” garners a lot of emotions and opinions from many Americans. On the other hand, saying “benzos” does not carry the same weight.

Maybe it should.

In addition to deaths caused by the drug class, the use of benzodiazepines for medical purposes is up. According to the U.S. Library of National Medicine, between 1996 and 2013, the number of adults who had a prescription for this type of drug increased by 67 percent. Opioids are attributed to far more deaths than benzodiazepines, but the NIH also reported in 2018 that many people mix the two types of drugs together and 30 percent of opioid-caused overdoses also included benzodiazepines.

The Recovery Village’s survey results indicate that benzodiazepine use could be just as prevalent as opioid use. Of the 399 respondents, 228 said they had taken a prescription drug at some point in their life. Nearly 55 percent said that they took a benzodiazepine drug while 51 percent said they took an opioid. Less than 19 percent of respondents said they took a stimulant drug, such as Adderall.

The Devil You Know (Opioids) and the Devil You Don’t (Benzos)

The Recovery Village’s survey results show that benzodiazepine use among respondents is on par with opioid use. However, the participants in the survey do not view benzodiazepines with the same suspicious eye as they do opioids.

At least not yet.

Around 71 percent of respondents believe that the accessibility of prescription opioids has a negative impact on society. The same people were asked the same question, but about prescription benzodiazepines. Only 64 percent of the respondents said that their accessibility has a negative impact on society.

More than half of respondents — 51.63 percent, to be precise — said that benzodiazepine use is not yet as big of an issue as opioid use but could become so in the future. Nearly 38 percent believe benzodiazepine use is already as troublesome as opioid use, and a little more than 10 percent believe that benzodiazepine use will never reach the epidemic level that opioid has gained.

Why is benzodiazepine use not as big of a concern as opioid use? Half of the respondents who answered this way said that benzodiazepines are not as addictive as opioids. However, that is a misconception.

How Dangerous Can Benzos Be?

Dr. Anna Lembke, chief of addiction medicine at Stanford University Medical Center, explained in her article on the website STAT that benzodiazepines are extremely effective in treating for anxiety, depression and insomnia. She added that because of this effectiveness, doctors are quick to prescribe patients with them.

As an example, there were 46,000 prescriptions for Xanax in 2010, according to a CBS News report. The drug is prescribed as an anti-anxiety medication, which are widely used as 40 million Americans ages 18 and older suffer from anxiety.

Lembke said patients who take these drugs can quickly develop a tolerance, requiring a larger dose to achieve the same effects. As the dose increases, patients are likely to experience withdrawal symptoms as the body becomes accustomed to the drug’s presence.

Just as bad, if not worse, is that benzodiazepines are extremely addictive. Lembke said that quite a lot of her patients have more difficulty stopping benzodiazepine use than they do with opioid use.

“More people than you might think are taking them,” Lembke wrote. “Yet few people realize how many people get addicted to and die from them.”

While many people are aware of the dangers of prescription opioid use, benzodiazepine prescriptions remain lesser known and on the rise. So are overdose deaths related to benzos. However, the same strategy for deterring prescription opioid use can apply to benzodiazepines. Increasing discussion about these drugs, including their addictive nature and their ties to anxiety disorders, will help slow the death toll that is at the heart of America’s prescription drug crisis.

If you or a loved one are struggling with benzodiazepines or opioid addiction, The Recovery Village can help. Call today to learn more about treatment options.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.