Can You Die from Benzodiazepine Withdrawal?
Each year in the U.S., some 66 million doctors’ appointments result in the patient receiving a prescription for benzodiazepine drugs. Also known as “benzos,” these drugs are considered downers or sedatives and work by slowing down the body’s central nervous system and diminishing brain activity. Unfortunately, when used illicitly or outside what a doctor might prescribe, they can be deadly.
From January 2019 through June 2020, 17 percent of all overdose deaths involved benzodiazepine drugs. Perhaps most alarming is that benzodiazepine use appears to be experiencing a resurgence after a steady dip. For context, consider the fact that benzodiazepine-related overdose deaths decreased from 11,537 in 2017 to 9,711 in 2019 — yet, by 2021, the death toll was back up to 12,499.
While it’s critical that people who are misusing benzos or have used them longer than the prescribed period stop using them, it is dangerous to stop using the drug “cold turkey.” Instead, a doctor can help the user taper off the drug, which is safer and more comfortable.
What Happens to the Body When You Take Benzodiazepines?
Benzodiazepines are approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration to treat stress and anxiety-related conditions, including generalized anxiety disorder, insomnia, seizures, social phobia, and panic disorder. However, the drugs are also used (safely and suitably) in other ways, like before specific medical procedures and to treat some sleep, tic, and bipolar disorders.
To understand how benzodiazepines work, it helps to learn about the role of a neurotransmitter named gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, a critical chemical messenger in the brain. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that deliver messages between brain cells to ensure proper functioning. GABA informs the body that it’s time to relax or remain calm. Knowing that helps us to understand why benzodiazepines are prescribed for someone who might have stress or anxiety.
During peak periods of stress or anxiety, the brain naturally overstimulates. Benzodiazepines help to combat the overstimulation, sending messages via GABA to reduce unwanted sensations the person may be feeling. For many people, that reduction in overstimulation allows them to work, attend school, be active socially, and live a productive life.
Adverse Side Effects of Benzodiazepines
We’ve already talked about what happens when someone appropriately uses these drugs, but what are some of the adverse side effects that occur when there is misuse?
Misuse occurs when someone develops a dependency on the drug and begins using it recreationally, without the supervision of a physician or healthcare professional, or over the recommended dose.
In addition to abuse and dependency, some of the more common adverse side effects one can experience on benzodiazepines include pronounced drowsiness or sedation, slowed breathing, slurred speech, confusion, dizziness, decreased blood pressure, impaired motor skills, the development of depression or suicidal tendencies, and memory loss. When used over a long period, benzodiazepine use was shown to cause substantial cognitive decline that did not resolve three months after discontinuation.
Studies also show that the risk of driving or operating machinery while on benzodiazepines represents roughly the same level of risk of driving a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol content near or exceeding illegal levels. Interestingly, older people are also at a higher risk of suffering a hip fracture while on benzodiazepines, with some research showing it increases the risk by at least 50 percent.
Mixing benzodiazepines with other drugs, including alcohol, can intensify adverse side effects. Sometimes, prolonged or heavy benzodiazepine use can actually cause the person to experience the type of anxiety they initially sought to treat.
Signs of Benzodiazepine Misuse and Abuse
As mentioned, when taken in the short-term or as intended, benzodiazepines are an effective drug — which is why so many providers prescribe them to their patients. Unfortunately, misuse and abuse of the drug are rampant, leading some experts to question if the drugs are “the new opioids.”
One of the biggest problems with benzodiazepine misuse and abuse is that recognizing it as an outsider can be challenging. However, some indicators signaling misuse or abuse may be present, including mood changes, worsening school or work performance, changes in appearance, headaches, and a willingness to lie, steal, or deceit to obtain more of the drug.
What Can Happen During Benzodiazepine Withdrawal?
For those ready to stop using benzodiazepines, one of their biggest concerns probably centers on the detox process, including the question, “Can you die from benzodiazepine withdrawal?” The short answer is yes, it’s possible to die from benzodiazepine withdrawal.
Withdrawal from benzodiazepines is not unlike what one might experience when abruptly quitting any drug. The physiological response associated with benzodiazepine withdrawal includes symptoms like irritability, sweating, insomnia, confusion, muscle aches, panic attacks, seizures, and heightened heart rate and blood pressure.
The most likely cause for a fatal case of benzodiazepine withdrawal, as referenced in this research article, is seizure-like activity that takes place in the hours following the person quitting the drug. However, because withdrawal causes an assortment of both physical and psychological reactions, it’s certainly possible for benzodiazepine withdrawal to cause death in many ways.
Many factors determine the symptoms one might experience during withdrawal. Some common factors include the type of benzodiazepine the person was taking, if the drug has been used in concert with other drugs or alcohol, how frequently and how much the person used the drug, and the person’s tolerance levels.
The best and most effective way to quit benzodiazepines is to undergo a detox surrounded by trained healthcare professionals. Doing so helps ensure you’re safe throughout the process and minimizes the risk of relapse since the drug won’t be at your disposal.
Midwest Recovery Centers Offers Both Detox and Treatment Programs
At Midwest Recovery Centers, we want to provide holistic healing for clients on the road to recovery, and that begins with a stay in our Residential Detoxification Center. Here, we help clients safely rid their bodies of benzodiazepines, providing 24/7 monitoring by trained healthcare professionals to ensure clients remain safe. Following detox, we encourage clients to stay with us as part of our Prescription Drug Abuse Treatment program.
If you or a loved one have an issue with benzodiazepines, we can help. To learn more about our facilities and treatment offerings, contact us today.