Benzodiazepines Side Effects and Use

The Benzodiazepines
The Benzodiazepines. Echo's WebMagic, Ltd.

Benzodiazepines are a class of drugs known as central nervous system depressants, which are used to treat a wide variety of health ailments and conditions, from anxiety to seizures. They work by enhancing the brain's response to a certain neurotransmitter known as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). This reduces excitability in the central nervous system and leads to feelings of calm. People taking benzodiazepines can experience altered mood, relaxed muscles, and drowsiness.

The most commonly prescribed benzodiazepines are:

  • Xanax (Alprazolam)
  • Klonopin (Clonazepam)
  • Valium (Deazepam)
  • Ativan (Lorazepam)
  • Halcion (Triazolam)

Benzodiazepine Side Effects

Most side effects of benzodiazepines are related to their action as central nervous system depressants. These include: 

  • Drowsiness
  • Dry mouth
  • Depression
  • Slurred speech
  • Muscle weakness
  • Short-term memory loss and impaired cognition
  • Impaired motor skills and coordination
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Diarrhea or constipation

Risk for Dependence 

Benzodiazepines are a Schedule IV medications because of their risk of physical and psychological addiction. Because of this, they are often prescribed only for a short period of time (often for two to four weeks). 

When taken for longer periods of time, benzodiazepines can result in tolerance, dependence, and symptoms of withdrawal if you suddenly stop taking them. This means the body will require more of the medication to achieve the same therapeutic effect and can result in withdrawal effects when discontinued abruptly (withdrawal symptoms can be minimized by tapering the medication off slowly).

Withdrawal symptoms, which can last up to six weeks as the body readjusts, may include:

  • Irritability
  • Nervousness
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Abdominal or stomach cramps
  • Confusion
  • Fast or pounding heartbeat
  • Increased sensitivity to sound
  • Increased sensitivity to touch and pain
  • Increased sensitivity to light
  • Increased sweating
  • An altered sense of reality
  • Depression
  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Tingling, burning, or prickly sensations
  • Trembling / shaking
  • Convulsions / seizures
  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations

In addition, many substances can interact with benzodiazepines and cause significant symptoms of overdose and even death. For example, alcohol and narcotic pain relievers, both of which are also central nervous system depressants, can greatly magnify the effect of benzodiazepines. Together, these drugs can dangerously slow respiration and heart functioning, or even cause them to cease altogether.  

Benzodiazepine Uses

Benzodiazepine medications all act to depress the central nervous system. Various medications in the family are used to treat a variety of conditions including:

  • Anxiety - but not the type of anxiety brought about by everyday stresses and strains
  • Insomnia - generally short-term treatment
  • Relieve or reduce muscle spasms
  • Alcohol withdrawal symptoms
  • Panic disorder
  • Epilepsy and other convulsive disorders

Learn more about various benzodiazepines:

    Disclaimer: This profile is not intended to be all-inclusive or to replace information provided by your doctor or with the prescription from the manufacturer.

    Sources:

    Lessenger, James E., MD and Feinberg, Steven D., MD, MPH. “Abuse of Prescription and Over-the-Counter Medications.” J Am Board Fam Med. Jan 2008. 1983; 286: 1876-7.

    Pomerantz, Jay M., MD. “Risk Versus Benefit of Benzodiazepines.” Psychiatric Times. 01 August 2007. Vol. 24, No. 7.

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