Benzodiazepines (often referred to simply as benzos) fall into the category of central nervous system depressants. They‘re typically used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders.
They can also be prescribed as sedatives and as anticonvulsants (to treat epilepsy), and as muscle relaxants. Sometimes they are prescribed for “off-label” uses.
You‘ve probably heard of some of the brand-name benzodiazepines. They include: Ativan (lorazepam), Klonopin (clonazepam), Xanax (alprazolam), and Valium (diazepam).
They are often abused. They are often used in dangerous combinations with alcohol or other drugs. They can be quite dangerous even when used as authorized by prescription. When abused or taken in unsafe manners, they are extremely dangerous.
The Controversial History of Benzodiazepines
In recent years, researchers have been cataloguing the dangers of benzodiazepines. One study reported in Psychology Today described efforts to get feedback from benzodiazepine users in America and Britain. This report came just after a 2010 warning from the Medical Research Council that Valium and Xanax can cause permanent brain damage. Surprisingly, this warning actually dates back to the 1970s, when the rise of benzodiazepine prescriptions began.
Have researchers known about links between brain damage and benzodiazepines for almost forty years? Beginning in the 1970s, “vast numbers of people” started taking benzodiazepines to treat stress and anxiety. Even at this time, certain physicians and researchers worried about the dangers of these drugs. In 1975, a physician from the University of Tennessee indicated that benzodiazepines might be responsible for memory loss, saying, “I am very convinced that Valium, Librium, and other drugs of that class cause damage to the brain . . . and I am beginning to wonder if that damage is permanent.” Others echoed this finding, while also raising concerns about the addictive quality of the drugs along with other dangers.
Nonetheless, benzodiazepines were very popular for that decade and into the 1980s, until the use of “benzos,” as they‘re called for short, waned in popularity with the rise of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants.
From the 1980s and into the 1990s, SSRI antidepressants such as Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil gain prominence. During this time, several studies noted the dangers of benzodiazepines in comparison to the SSRI antidepressants, “including pronounced behavioral abnormalities and a serious risk of addiction.” Despite these findings, the drug class had resurgence in the early 2000s.
Known Dangers of Benzodiazepines
As benzodiazepines gained renewed popularity in America and in the U.K. in the 2000s, researchers voiced continued concern about the drugs in relation to addiction. In a 2002 Discovery Channel documentary, a researcher from the London Institute of Psychiatry explained that, while physicians had a pretty good idea in the 1970s that benzodiazepines posed a danger of addiction, they didn‘t have sufficient findings to curb the drug‘s use.
At that time, they had assumed that “only addictive personalities could become dependent, and that true addiction was unusual.” However, by the early 2000s, it was clear that “even people taking therapeutic doses” of benzodiazepines were at risk for addiction. With rising levels of addiction, other dangers became clear. Most notably, it is clear now that withdrawal from benzo use is highly dangerous, even more so that opiates such as heroin.
In addition, benzos pose a serious risk of overdose. Overdose can occur even with prescribed use. The risks of overdose increase dramatically when used in combination with alcohol or other drugs such as opiates. Unfortunately, this is far too common and often leads to severe injuries or death.
Possible Medical Negligence
The issue of medical negligence associated with benzo use most commonly come up in the context of withdrawal and overdose. In the case of withdrawal, a medical provider that fails to properly account for the dangers of withdrawal from benzos with resulting serious injury or death is almost by definition guilty of medical malpractice.
The same would hold true for doctors that prescribe benzos to patients known (or who the medical provider should have known) were likely to use the drugs in combination with alcohol or other dangerous drug combinations. Remarkably, there are mental health professionals who prescribe benzos knowing full well that their patient has alcohol and/or drug addiction issues. In fact, it may be that the patient is being treated for those very issues when he or she is prescribed benzos. Without proper precautions to protect the patient, this is inexcusable.
If you or a loved one has suffered serious injury or wrongful death in one of these contexts, then it is important to contact an experienced personal injury attorney right away.