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Commonly referred to as tranquilizers, benzodiazepines are a class of drugs prescribed to treat anxiety and tension, insomnia, seizures, symptoms of alcohol withdrawal and muscle spasms among others. They are also administered before anesthesia in preparation for medical procedures.
Benzodiazepines' action on the central nervous system reduces anxiety and causes relaxation and sedation. Common benzodiazepines used in the US include brand names such as Xanax, Valium, Lexotan, Librium, Ativan, Halcion and Anxon among others. Although more than 2000 benzodiazepines are available in the US, only about 15 are approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The drugs are usually classified according to the duration of their action. Therefore, different benzodiazepines can be described as short acting, medium and long acting.
These drugs should be legally used only by prescription. However, their high potential for causing addiction and dependence means benzodiazepines are often abused and used for recreation purposes, a phenomenon that is mainly attributed to the relatively easy and wide availability of the drug. Prescription drug abuse, including benzodiazepine abuse is a serious public health problem in the US.
According to statistics, some drug addicts mix benzodiazepines with other drugs or alcohol, amphetamines and opioids to prolong the high. Sometime, people who are already addicted to alcohol and drugs such as cocaine use benzodiazepines for treating the hangover effects of using these drugs. For people recovering from their addiction, benzodiazepines may be administered to help them cope with withdrawal symptoms such as insomnia and anxiety. Although their intensity of their 'high' is relatively low, benzodiazepines may also be used on their own in high doses to produce effects similar to those produced by other recreational drugs.
Such habits are the reason for many emergency admissions in hospitals and other treatment centers as a result of benzodiazepine abuse and overdose. Additionally, mixing the drugs with other substances can cause interactions that can produce dangerous health consequences.
Generally, recreational benzodiazepine abuse can easily result in dependence. People who become dependent on benzodiazepines are unable to sleep or function normally without using the drugs. When used properly under medical supervision, benzodiazepines are safe and effective. However, abusing the drugs can easily result in dependence, which in turn, increases the risk of overdosing because the user needs higher and higher doses to feel normal. This eventually puts the user at the risk of developing health conditions such as confusion and drowsiness, dizziness, weakness and blurred vision. The patient may also have slurred speech, lack coordination, have difficulty in breathing and depending on dosage, the patient may go into a coma.
After prolonged recreational benzodiazepine abuse, people who are addicted to benzodiazepines may show changes in behaviour patterns and may have emotional problems and mood disturbances. Performance at work or school and relationships with loved ones may deteriorate. Benzodiazepine addicts may also experience disorders such as anxiety, insomnia, eating disorders, headaches and general weakness.
The main indicators of addiction to benzodiazepines include increased tolerance, consistently thinking about obtaining the drugs and craving them, difficulty in stopping the drugs' use without help, showing withdrawal signs when the drug is not taken, habits such as getting multiple prescriptions of the drugs illegally from different doctors and neglecting personal responsibilities and loss of interest in everyday activities.
The socioeconomic results of long term benzodiazepine abuse include increased risk of accidents at home, workplace or when on the road, risk of complications from overdosing on the drugs especially when mixed with other drugs, depression and suicidal thoughts, aggression and violent behaviour, anti social tendencies and domestic violence. Addicts may find it difficult to keep a job and may miss many days of work because of illness caused by the addiction and incur hospital bills. Mothers who abuse these drugs expose their unborn babies to harmful chemicals. Generally, drug abuse is an expensive habit to maintain and may also land the user in jail.
Addiction to benzodiazepine however, can be treated successfully in a supportive and controlled setting. Because stopping the drug suddenly can cause problems, treatment for benzodiazepine addiction involves reducing the dosage gradually over a certain period or substituting the drug with a different type that reduces the craving for benzodiazepines in the patients.
Often, benzodiazepine addicts are depressed or suffer from insomnia and anxiety. Treatment should therefore be tailored according to the individual patient's needs and combined with other psychological approaches in specialist facilities.
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