Benzo Epidemic: A Killer Hiding in the Shadow of Opioids

Though opioids get more media attention, benzo abuse is equally rampant.

In recent years, opioid abuse has received a lot of attention – and for good reason. In 2014, 19,000 people died from overdoses involving prescription opioids; that’s up 16 percent from 2013. But notice the wording; it’s important: “Overdoses involving prescription opioids” – what does this mean, exactly?

The word choice means other drugs were likely involved in the overdose. In 30 percent of opioid-related deaths, it’s the combination of benzos and opioids that result in an overdose. So, why don’t we hear more about benzo abuse? Well, that’s a really good question.

Benzo Stats

Benzos (short for benzodiazepines, a class of sedatives including such popular drugs as Valium, Xanax, Klonopin and Ativan) are a hidden killer, overshadowed by the massive reports on opioid abuse. But, the dangers of these drugs shouldn’t be overlooked.

While we’ve been focused on opioids, benzo abuse statistics have exploded:

  • Between 1996 and 2013, benzo overdoses increased more than 500 percent.
  • Xanax is the number one prescribed psychiatric medication in the country, with over 50 million prescriptions written each year.
  • Improper use of Xanax results in over 125,000 ER visits annually.

The Lethal Cocktail

The combination of opioids and benzos is particularly deadly because both classes of drugs slow down your body systems and create a sense of calm. With continued use, more and more drugs are required to create a sense of euphoria. As a result, many begin to use both drugs, relying on the combined effect to produce the desired sensation.

The effects on breathing and heart rate are exponential. It’s not like taking one dose, plus another dose. The combination is more like taking three or four. That’s when breathing stops.

Popularity Kills

Back in the 50s and 60’s, doctors discovered benzos were useful as a “quick fix” for things like soothing nerves or falling asleep “easier.” They began prescribing benzos in droves to housewives who were feeling “frazzled” or teens who had trouble falling asleep at a decent hour.

Decades later, benzos are being prescribed at an alarming rate and, many times, for conditions that don’t require long-term pharmaceutical therapy. Drugs like Xanax, Klonipin, Ativan and Valium, for example, are commonly taken for long periods of time – and in increasing dosages – for treatment of chronic issues.

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