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What is Benzodiazepine?

Benzodiazepines, sometimes called benzos, are a class of psychoactive drugs used to treat a wide range of conditions, including anxiety, panic attacks, and insomnia. These medications are also useful to reduce seizures, relax muscles, and induce sleep.

History of Benzodiazepines

Commonly referred to as minor tranquilizers, benzodiazepine was discovered accidentally in 1955 and made available to the public in 1960 by Hoffmann-La Roche. By 1977 benzos were the most prescribed medication worldwide.

How do Benzodiazepines Work?

Benzos are a class of medications that are used to enhance the effects of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that facilitate the transmission of signals from one nerve cell or neuron to the receptor end of a target nerve cell.  Many neurotransmitters are made from simple and plentiful precursors such as amino acids that are readily available from a person’s diet. The exact number of these chemical messengers are not known, but more than 200 have been identified at this time.

Researchers hypothesize that Benzos work by affecting the gamma-aminobutyric acid found in the neurons of the brain. It is their theory that the excess activity of specific nerves causes some psychological disorders such as anxiety. GABA suppresses this activity naturally. Unfortunately, some individuals experience chemical imbalances that inhibit the production of this vital neurotransmitter. Benzodiazepines are used to discourage the reuptake of GABA and promote the natural abilities of the brain to control certain emotions.

What are Benzodiazepines used for?

Benzodiazepines are primarily used to treat anxiety, panic attacks, convulsions, and insomnia but can also be used during general anesthesia, sedation prior to surgery or some diagnostic procedures, muscle relaxation, alcohol withdrawal, and drug-associated agitation.

Treatment with Benzodiazepine
Treatment with Benzodiazepine (Benzos)

There are several different forms of benzodiazepines, each differing in how quickly they work, how long they work, and for what illness they are prescribed. Some of these medications can be used interchangeably. However, clinicians tend to use certain ones for specific conditions. Benzos can be classified into short, intermediate, or long-acting forms. Medications with shorter half-lives work very quickly and tend to leave the patient’s system fast. Longer-acting medicines stay in the person’s bloodstream longer as well as take a much longer time to work. The list below breaks down the different types of benzos.

Short-acting Benzodiazepine:

Triazolam (Halcion): sedative-hypnotic medication that is used for the treatment of insomnia

Midazolam (Versed): used before surgery or other medical procedure when needed to relieve anxiety and produce sleepiness

Clorazepate (Tranxene): anti-anxiety medication that treats anxiety, insomnia, and seizures.

Intermediate-acting Benzodiazepine:

They take longer for the patient to notice the effect and typically stays in the bloodstream for a greater length of time. They include:

Alprazolam (Xanax): an anti-anxiety medication used to treat anxiety and panic disorders

Lorazepam (Ativan): another anti-anxiety medication used to treat insomnia, generalized anxiety, or anxiety that occurs with depression

Temazepam (Restoril): A sedative-hypnotic drug that treats insomnia

Oxazepam (Serax): anti-anxiety medication used to treat anxiety, anxiety with depression, and alcohol withdrawal symptoms

Estazolam (ProSom): sedative-hypnotic medication that treats insomnia

Long-acting Benzodiazepine:

Long-acting Benzodiazepines take longer to begin working but are effective the longest of all other forms. They include the following:

Diazepam (Valium): anti-anxiety, muscle-relaxant, and anticonvulsant that treats anxiety and muscle spasms; can also be used during alcohol withdrawal

Chlordiazepoxide (Librium): an anti-anxiety drug used to alcohol withdrawal symptoms, anxiety, and tremors

Flurazepam (Dalmane): sedative-hypnotic medication for the treatment of insomnia

Quazepam (Doral): sedative-hypnotic medication used to treat insomnia

Clonazepam (Rivotril, Klonopin): anticonvulsant medication that treats anxiety, panic disorders, and epileptic seizures

Benzodiazepine types
Types Of Benzodiazepine

 Side effects of Benzodiazepine

Today, benzodiazepines have earned their place as one of the most effective treatments for certain mental health disorders. Unfortunately, this classification of medications is not without its controversies. While generally viewed as both safe and effective for short-term use, long-term use may have:

  • Decreased effectiveness
  • Physical dependence
  • Withdrawal once discontinued
  • Increased risk of dementia.

Benzodiazepine usage in pregnancy

There is also reason to be wary of benzo use during pregnancy due to the possibility of both physical deformities and neurological effects of prenatal exposure. Additionally, newborns that were exposed to benzodiazepines in utero can experience severe withdrawal symptoms.

Over dosage of Benzodiazepine

Overdoses are another concern in patients that have been prescribed benzos for an extended amount of time. In such instances, an overdose can cause dangerous deep unconsciousness. Despite this, benzos are less toxic than their predecessors, barbiturates, and deaths rarely occur when it is the only drug taken. If used in conjunction with another central nervous system (CNS) depressant such as alcohol and opioids, the potential for toxicity and fatal overdose will increase exponentially.

How to get prescribed Benzodiazepines ?

Patients who suffer from anxiety or panic attacks may have already discussed benzodiazepines with their health care team. However, individuals who have not taken the first step to treatment and sought the help of a mental health professional may never have heard of this class of medications, or if they have, they may misunderstand their use and benefits. If you feel you are one of the estimated 40 million adults in America that are suffering from an anxiety disorder, seek the advice of a qualified medical professional today.

Benzodiazepines work best when combined with other therapies such as individual counseling or group therapy, where individuals who are dealing with the same issues can talk about their conditions. A robust support system will go a long way to help individuals recover and learn how to cope with and overcome their illness.

Anxiety shouldn’t be a condition where patients feel the need to be ashamed or to hide what they are going through. With such a high number of people diagnosed each year, anxiety disorders have quickly become the most common mental illness in the county. Thankfully these conditions are highly treatable even though less than half of those suffering receive any form of treatment.

Since the push for a greater understanding of mental health diseases, clinicians have lobbied for more research and better, more effective treatments. While much is known about these conditions, there are still many more things we have yet to discover, including the exact cause of anxiety disorders. At this time, researchers can only conclude that this mental health issue is caused by several risk factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, and traumatic life events.

Don’t wait another day to speak with your health care provider. With all the treatment options available, there is no reason to suffer alone.

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