The next drug epidemic…
With the increasing public health awareness on the ills of misusing prescribe drugs, the growing use of anti-anxiety pills persist. This reminds us of the early days of the opioid crisis (drug epidemic).
Considered relatively safe and non-addictive by consumers and many doctors, Xanax, Valium, Ativan and Klonopin have been prescribed to millions of Americans for decades to calm jittery nerves and promote a good night’s sleep.
But the numbers of people taking the sedatives and the average length of time they’re taking them have shot up since the 1990s, when doctors also started liberally prescribing opioid painkillers.
As a result, some state and federal officials are now warning that excessive prescribing of a class of drugs known as benzodiazepines or “benzos” is putting more people at risk of dependence on the pills and is exacerbating the fatal overdose toll of painkillers and heroin. Some local governments are beginning to restrict benzo prescriptions.
When taken in combination with painkillers or illicit narcotics, benzodiazepines can increase the likelihood of a fatal overdose as much as tenfold, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. On their own, the medications can cause debilitating withdrawal symptoms that last for months or years.
Public health officials warn that people who abruptly stop taking benzodiazepines risk seizures or even death.
With heightened public awareness of the nation’s opioid epidemic, some state and local officials are insisting that these anti-anxiety medications start sharing some of the scrutiny.
“We have this whole infrastructure set up now to prevent overprescribing of opioids and address the need for addiction treatment,” said Dr. Anna Lembke, a researcher and addiction specialist at Stanford University. “We need to start making benzos part of that.”
“What we’re seeing is just like what happened with opioids in the 1990s,” she said. “It really does begin with overprescribing.”
The number of adults filling a benzodiazepine prescription increased by two-thirds between 1996 and 2013, from 8 million to nearly 14 million, according to a review of market data by Lembke and others in the New England Journal of Medicine. Despite the known dangers of co-prescribing painkillers and anti-anxiety medications, the rate of combined prescriptions nearly doubled between 2001 and 2013.