Benzodiazepine medications can be effective when used in the short-term (less than two weeks) or intermittently to manage the symptoms of anxiety and insomnia.
The risks of using benzodiazepines for longer than four weeks outweigh the short-term benefits. The risk of harm also increases dramatically if benzodiazepines are combined with other sedatives such as prescription opioids or alcohol.
If you have sleep apnea, you use benzodiazepines with other opioids or alcohol, or you have history of anxiety or depression, you are more at risk of harm.
Getting to know benzodiazepines
What are ‘benzos’?
Benzodiazepines or ‘benzos’ are sedatives or minor tranquilliser medications. They are often referred to as sleeping tablets or muscle relaxants and are usually prescribed for anxiety problems and insomnia. They often make your anxiety feel better in the short term because they reduce anxiety and make you feel relaxed.
There are many different types of benzodiazepines, and each type can also have a number of different brand names.
Common benzodiazepines include:
+ diazepam (brand names such as Valium or Diazepam Intensol)
+ temazapam (brand names such as Temaze or Normison), and
+ alprazolam (brand names such as Xanax, Ralozam or Kalma)
+ oxazepam (brand names such as Serepax, Murelax or Alepam)
It is important to also note that while so-called“Z” drugs such as
+ Zolpidem (with brand names such as Stilnox), and
+ Zopiclone (with brand names such as Imovane)
are hypnotics, they act in a similar way to benzodiazepines. These medications should also only be used in the short-term.
Benzodiazepines have a limited role for some short-term issues, but like opioids, are best to avoid as ongoing treatment.
Speak with your doctor or another health professional about your medication use and how to manage your health condition/s.
The role of benzodiazepines for anxiety, sleep and pain
Benzodiazepines and anxiety
Benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed to manage the symptoms of anxiety, particularly for those experiencing panic attacks or agoraphobia. However, benzodiazepines do not treat the underlying causes of anxiety and are the third-line treatment recommended for people seeking to manage anxiety and/or panic disorder.
Evidence shows that psychological therapies, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), are the most effective ways to treat these conditions. These treatments address the underlying causes of anxiety, and help people to change their thought patterns and how they react to certain situations. If further treatment is required, anti-depressants are the next line of treatment recommended to reduce the symptoms of anxiety. These medications don’t have as high a risk of dependency.
Benzodiazepines should therefore only ideally play a short-term role in treating anxiety, and should be used infrequently or for less than 2 to 4 weeks. When used for longer than this, it is common for people to become dependent on their medication, and even experience increased anxiety due to withdrawal.
You can read more about benzodiazepines and anxiety on Beyond Blue’s website here.
Benzodiazepines and sleep
Similarly, benzodiazepines or ‘sleeping tablets’ are only recommended for occasional use to help you fall asleep.
Evidence has shown that behavioural treatment strategies are the most effective way to manage common sleep problems.
In fact, long-term use of sleeping tablets can lead to worse sleep patterns, lower quality sleep and waking up frequently in the night and increased insomnia due to withdrawal.
Benzodiazepines and pain
There is little scientific evidence that benzodiazepines play any role in the treatment of pain.
We do know, however, that chronic pain patients often experience anxiety due to their condition, or may have trouble falling asleep, and this may help explain why patients are sometimes prescribed benzodiazepines.
Your doctor or another health professional can help answer any questions you may have about your medications.
It is important to avoid using benzodiazepines in combination with pain medications such as opioids, or other central nervous system depressants such as alcohol. This can increase the risk of slowing down a person’s breathing, leading to overdose.
Managing anxiety, sleep problems and chronic pain
There are lots of different ways to manage both the underlying causes of anxiety and its symptoms. Find out more about managing your anxiety:
+ Speak with your GP or make an appointment to see a mental health professional such as a psychologist or counsellor
+ Your GP will also be able to speak with you about a Mental Health Care plan to subsidise your treatment through Medicare
+ Visit Beyond Blue’s website or call their helpline on 1300 22 4636
Most of us have had trouble sleeping at different times in our lives, and the quality of our sleep can have a big impact on our wellness. There are many resources to help you improve your sleep.
+ If you have trouble sleeping regularly, talk with your GP to find out the best treatment for you.
+ This might involve working with your GP to find out the underlying reason/s you can’t sleep, and could include filling out a questionnaire, keeping a sleep diary, and/or referral to a psychologist or sleep specialist
+ SA Health has provided an excellent ‘Insomnia Management Kit’you can work through with your GP to determine how to improve your sleep
+ NPS MedicineWise also has some great resources on insomnia availablehere
Managing chronic pain
For more resources about managing chronic pain visit ScriptWise’s ‘Managing Chronic Pain’ information tab here.
Risks of using benzodiazepines long-term
It is possible to become dependent on benzodiazepines without realising it. The brain develops a “tolerance” and adjusts to the medication so that it is no longer effective. This often means that more and more medication is needed to get the same effect.
Dependence can develop quickly, within a few weeks or months, and the risks of dependence increase the longer the medication is used.
Once you have developed a dependence on benzodiazepines, it means you will experience withdrawal symptoms when you try to reduce the amount of medication you are taking, or when you try to stop using it.
Benzodiazepine dependence symptoms
If you answer yes to any of the following questions, it is important to speak with the medical professional who has prescribed your medication (usually your GP) to discuss a plan to slowly reduce your medication to avoid the side-effects associated with dependence.
+ Have you been taking your benzodiazepine medication (a tranquilliser or sleeping pill) for longer than 2 to 4 weeks?
+ Do you feel you need your benzodiazepine medication to cope?
+ Do you feel sick and/or more anxious when you stop or take less of your benzodiazepine medication?
+ Do you have more trouble sleeping than when you first started taking your benzodiazepine?
+ Do you feel like your medication isn’t having the same effect that it used to?
+ Have you taken more medication to get the same effect? Particularly during stressful times?
+ Do you feel stressed or anxious when you don’t have your medication with you? Even if it’s just for a short time?
+ Do you go out of your way to make sure you always have your medication with you?
+ Is your medication use interfering with your daily life? Is it negatively affecting your work or family life? Your relationships?
+ Do you have trouble remembering things or feel like it’s harder to cope with everyday life?
Withdrawal symptoms occur when benzodiazepines are reduced or stopped. People can experience no symptoms or can be surprised by the variety of withdrawal symptoms which can last from a few days, to weeks or months.
Usually the longer a person uses benzodiazepines, and the higher their dose, the more likely they are to experience longer and more severe withdrawal symptoms.
Do not stop using your medications suddenly (go ‘cold turkey’). This can lead to severe withdrawal symptoms, including seizures or fits. Visit the ‘treatment options’ section below to find out more about next steps, or speak directly with your doctor.
‘Rebound’ withdrawal symptoms
Often when a person reduces or stops their benzodiazepines, they experience an increase in the original symptoms they took the medication for such as anxiety or insomnia.
These ‘rebound’ symptoms can cause people to mistakenly believe that their original issue has gotten worse. This might mean they think they need to increase their dose, when really, this is a symptom of benzodiazepine dependence.
People who are using benzodiazepines for a long time can constantly be experiencing withdrawal symptoms, without ever reducing their dose. This can mean that people don’t realise that their health problems may be due to withdrawal, and not other underlying factors.
What are the symptoms of withdrawal?
According to Beyond Blue and Reconnexion, common benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms include:
+ feeling detached from reality
+ heightened sensitivity to noise, light, smell and touch
+ muscle pain
+ feeling depressed
+ loss of memory or appetite
+ seizures (may occur with sudden and complete stopping of benzodiazepines)
Too many Australians are dying due to prescription medication overdose involving benzodiazepines. Prescription medications, not illicit drugs, are responsible for the highest number of drug-induced deaths in Australia. In 2016, prescription opioid and benzodiazepine related drug deaths outnumbered the road toll in Australia.
663 Australians died due to a benzodiazepine induced death and 784 due to a prescription opioid induced death (codeine, oxycodone, fentanyl, tramadol or pethidine).
When used alone, there is little risk of a benzodiazepine overdose. But when benzodiazepines are used with other central nervous system depressants such as opioids or alcohol, they increase the risk of an overdose.
What is an overdose?
When benzodiazepines are combined with other central nervous system depressants, they can act to slow down a person’s breathing and heart rate even more.
An overdose happens when these medications reduce the body’s natural urge to breath and stop someone from breathing. This can lead to brain damage or death.
If someone has overdosed due to a combination of benzodiazepines and prescription or illicit opioids, naloxone can be used to temporarily reverse the effects of the opioid overdose. To find out more about preventing an opioid overdose at www.scriptwise.org.au/prescription-opioids.
Getting effective treatment
Visit your GP
If you are concerned about your benzodiazepine use, it is important to first talk with your prescriber (usually your GP) to make a plan to reduce your medication by small amounts over time.
Do not stop using your medications suddenly (go ‘cold turkey’). This can lead to severe withdrawal symptoms, including seizures or fits.
Your prescriber can help you to gradually reduce your dose, giving your body time to adjust. Read more about reducing your dose in the next tab.
It can also be really important to ensure that prior to reducing your medication, you feel comfortable and have the tools necessary to manage your anxiety and/or sleep issues.
When reducing benzodiazepine use, it is possible that the original problem the medication was used for could become more intense. This means it’s even more important to ensure you have the necessary tools to manage during what can be a difficult time.
You can visit your GP to get a referral and Mental Health Care Plan to see a mental health practitioner with a Medicare rebate, or you can choose to see a psychologist or counsellor privately.
Reconnexion also have some great resources to find out more about this process, and a free helpline in Victoria you can call to arrange counselling or a secondary consult with your GP should they need assistance. It is a free service and does not require a referral or mental health care plan. You can call Reconnexion on 1300 273 266.
Slowly reducing benzodiazepines
Tapering off benzodiazepines
Don’t stop your medication suddenly or without speaking with your health care professional. The withdrawal symptoms can be extremely uncomfortable, and in some cases dangerous.
If you are concerned that you have been using benzodiazepines long-term, speak to your prescriber (usually your GP).
Your doctor will likely talk with you about an individualised plan for you to slowly reduce and eventually stop your medication over time. This might involve slowing reducing your dose each month.
This process can take weeks or months depending on a number of different factors.
If you have been prescribed a high dose of benzodiazepines for a long time, your doctor may also recommend that you are admitted to hospital to help manage your withdrawal process.