Dr. Sumit Agarwal, of Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, has seen benzo prescriptions become much more widespread for a variety of patients.
“I think most of our attention has been on the opioid epidemic and for good reason, but I think benzodiazepines have flown under the radar,” Agarwal said.
Cunningham has conducted research that shows that the amount of benzodiazepine medicine in a prescription doubled between 1996 and 2013. During the same period, overall prescribing of benzos increased 67%.
”I think many of us feel that if we don’t turn our attention to benzodiazepines, if we ignore this pattern that we’re beginning to see, we may very well find ourselves in the same position that we have with opioids,” said Cunningham.
Dr. Anna Lembke, medical director of addiction medicine at Stanford University, said that benzos are becoming part of the culture in a way that can be dangerous. That’s in part because of easy access to the powerful drugs.
“There’s increased availability and increased access, not just through prescriptions but through illicit sources,” she said. “You’ve got this popularization of Xanax in culture and in music, and the availability (of benzodiazepines) on the dark web—all of that is part of the growing problem.”
Lembke pointed out that even when they are used under a doctor’s supervision, benzos can be very dangerous and highly addictive.
“The problem is in the long term, they lead to more problems than they solve,” she said. “People develop a tolerance, and they need more and more to get the same effect. They develop a dependence, finding when they don’t take them their anxiety is worse. And they think, ‘Oh, I need it because I have an anxiety disorder,’ but in many instances they’re actually medicating withdrawal from the last dose, so you can get into this vicious cycle. If they worked long term there would be nothing wrong with it, but they don’t and then they cause all kinds of harm.”