America is well aware of its opioid epidemic, but there’s a hidden crisis brewing with prescription sedatives such as Xanax and Valium, a new review warns.
Dennis Thompson | HealthDay
Known as benzodiazepines, overdose deaths involving these medications have increased exponentially over the past decade, in lockstep with a steady growth in prescriptions for the drugs, the review authors found.
Use of these drugs has become too casual in modern society, said review author Dr. Anna Lembke. She’s an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences with the Stanford University School of Medicine.
“These are highly addictive and potentially lethal drugs, and many people don’t know that,” Lembke said. “Sadly, most physicians are also unaware of this and blithely prescribe them without educating their patients about the risk of addiction.”
Benzodiazepines are prescribed to treat a variety of conditions, including anxiety, insomnia and seizures.
Prescriptions for benzodiazepines increased by 67 percent between 1996 and 2013, from 8.1 million to 13.5 million. The quantities of drugs obtained with these prescriptions more than tripled during that same period, the researchers said.
As a result, more people are becoming addicted to benzodiazepines and falling victim to overdose. Overdoses involving the drugs multiplied sevenfold between 1999 and 2015, increasing from 1,135 to 8,791 deaths.
“Just like with opioids, people overestimate the benefits and underestimate the risks of benzodiazepines,” Lembke said. “They are effective for a panic attack or severe insomnia, but when taken daily long-term, people develop tolerance and dependence. They stop working and they can even make anxiety and insomnia worse.”
Many overdose deaths involve people taking a benzodiazepine with another substance, such as opioids or alcohol, the review authors added.
Despite this, rates of prescribing benzodiazepine with opioids has nearly doubled, increasing from 9 percent in 2001 to 17 percent in 2013, the study found.
The review was published Feb. 22 in the New England Journal of Medicine.