Benzodiazepines such as Xanax, Valium linked to brain injury, job loss, suicide

AURORA, Col. —For decades, countless Americans have taken benzodiazepines such as Xanax, Valium and Klonopin as a supposedly safe way to treat anxiety. These drugs are certainly effective for temporarily staving off anxiety, but recent studies are now tying the benzodiazepine class of drugs with a number of troubling side effects. Researchers at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus report that both benzodiazepine use and stopping the use of these drugs have a connection with nervous system injury and adverse effects on life.

These findings illustrate a major medical conundrum that many Americans face and hardly anyone talks 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 are faced with severe withdrawal symptoms, excruciating rebound anxiety that is often worse than their initial stress, and a host of additional side effects such as insomnia and depression.

Benzodiazepine use has also been widely linked to memory problems and, to a lesser extent, complete cognitive decline. Perhaps most concerning of all is that many patients complain that they still don’t feel quite “normal” after stopping 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, MD, MPH, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and medical director of the nonprofit Alliance for Benzodiazepine Best Practices, in a press release. This should change the way we think about benzodiazepines and how they are prescribed.

Patients have been reporting long-term effects of benzodiazepines for over 60 years. I am one of those patients. Even though I took my meds as prescribed, I still experience symptoms on a daily basis at four years of no benzodiazepines. Our survey and the new term BIND give voice to the patient experience and indicate the need for further investigation, adds Christy Huff, MD, a co-author of the articles and a cardiologist and director of the Benzodiazepine Information Coalition.

Medicine, pills over brain MRI scans
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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 direct experience with benzodiazepines.

Symptoms were generally of a long duration, with 76.6% of all affirmative responses to questions about symptoms reporting the duration from at least a few months to more than a year. There were 10 symptoms that persisted for over a year among half of the respondents: low energy, difficulty concentrating, memory loss, anxiety, insomnia, sensitivity to light and sound, digestive problems, symptoms triggered by food and drink, weakness muscle and body pain.

In many cases, these symptoms were completely different and new from the original anxiety symptoms for which the benzodiazepines were prescribed in the first place. Additionally, most patients reported sustained negative impacts on life in all areas. More specifically, these negative events included significantly damaged relationships, job loss, and increased medical bills. Over half (54.4%) reported having suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide.

BIND, or benzodiazepine-induced neurological dysfunction, is hypothesized to be the result of changes that occur in the brain in response to the drugs. According to a general review of relevant pre-existing literature, BIND tends to occur in approximately one in five users over the long term. BIND risk factors are largely unknown at this point, meaning much more research is needed to further define the condition and yield new therapeutic avenues.

Previous studies have described this injury using a number of terms, probably the best known extended retreat. As part of this study, a scientific review board unified these names under the term Benzodiazepine-induced neurological dysfunction (BIND) in an attempt to more accurately describe the condition.

Also, in an effort to better characterize BIND, the researchers analyzed another dataset originally collected from a previously published survey of current and former benzodiazepine users that asked about their symptoms and any adverse life effects attributed to benzodiazepines. That survey, which included 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 undergoing tapering (24.4%) or those who had stopped completely (11.3%). Almost all subjects studied had a prescription for benzodiazepines (98.6%) and 91% took the drugs mostly as prescribed.

The study is published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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