AURORA, Colo. — For decades, countless Americans have been taking benzodiazepines like Xanax, Valium, and Klonopin as a supposedly safe way to treat anxiety. These drugs are certainly effective at staving off anxiety temporarily, but recent studies are now tying the benzodiazepine drug-class to numerous concerning side-effects. Researchers from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus report that both benzodiazepine usage and discontinuing usage of these drugs have a connection to nervous system injury and negative life effects.
These findings illustrate a major medical conundrum facing many Americans that barely anyone is talking about. Countless patients have been prescribed these drugs by their doctors and psychiatrists for daily use for years or even decades. Now, when many patients want to stop using benzodiazepines, they’re faced with major withdrawal symptoms, agonizing rebound anxiety that’s often worse than their initial stress, and a number of additional side-effects like insomnia and depression.
Benzodiazepine use has also been extensively linked to memory issues, and to a lesser extent, full-on cognitive decline. Perhaps most troubling of all, many patients complain they still don’t feel quite “normal” after ceasing benzodiazepine use.
“Despite the fact that benzodiazepines have been widely prescribed for decades, this survey presents significant new evidence that a subset of patients experience long-term neurological complications,” says Alexis Ritvo, M.D, M.P.H., an assistant professor in psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and medical director of the nonprofit Alliance for Benzodiazepine Best Practices, in a media release. “This should change how we think about benzodiazepines and how they are prescribed.”
“Patients have been reporting long-term effects from benzodiazepines for over 60 years. I am one of those patients. Even though I took my medication as prescribed, I still experience symptoms on a daily basis at four years off benzodiazepines. Our survey and the new term BIND give a voice to the patient experience and point to the need for further investigations,” adds Christy Huff, M.D, one of the paper’s co-authors and a cardiologist and director of Benzodiazepine Information Coalition.
This project was a collaborative effort between CU Anschutz, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and several patient-led advocacy organizations aimed at educating the public about the harms of benzodiazepines. Many members of the research team have first-hand experience with benzodiazepines.
Symptoms were generally long-lasting, with 76.6 percent of all affirmative answers to symptom questions reporting the duration lasting at least a few months to more than a year. There were 10 symptoms that persisted for over a year among half the respondents: low energy, difficulty focusing, memory loss, anxiety, insomnia, sensitivity to light and sounds, digestive problems, symptoms triggered by food and drink, muscle weakness, and body pain.
In many cases, these symptoms were entirely different and new from the original anxiety symptoms they had been prescribed benzodiazepines for in the first place. Additionally, most patients reported prolonged negative life impacts in all areas. More specifically, these negative events included significantly damaged relationships, job loss, and increased medical costs. Over half (54.4%) reported experiencing suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide.
BIND, or benzodiazepine-induced neurological dysfunction, is theorized to be a result of changes that occur in the brain in response to the drugs. According to a general review of pre-existing relevant literature, BIND tends to occur in about one in five long-term users. BIND risk factors are largely unknown at this point, which means much more research is necessary to further define the condition and produce new treatment avenues.
Earlier studies have described this injury using numerous terms, with the most well-known one probably being protracted withdrawal. As part of this study, a scientific review board unified these names under the term benzodiazepine-induced neurological dysfunction (BIND) in an effort to more accurately describe the condition.
Additionally, in an attempt to better characterize BIND, researchers analyzed another dataset originally collected by a previously published survey of current and former benzodiazepine users that asked about their symptoms and any adverse life effects they attributed to benzodiazepines. That survey, which encompassed 1,207 benzodiazepine users from benzodiazepine support groups and health and wellness sites, is the largest of its kind.
Participants included those actively taking benzodiazepines (63.2%), those in the process of tapering (24.4%) or those who had fully discontinued (11.3%). Close to all studied subjects had a prescription for benzodiazepines (98.6%), and 91 percent took the drugs mostly as prescribed.
The study is published in the journal PLoS ONE.