When benzodiazepines were first introduced, they were greeted with enthusiasm. Librium came first, in 1960, followed by Valium in 1962, and they were seen as an improvement over barbiturates for the treatment of anxiety, insomnia, and seizures. From 1968 to 1982, Valium (diazepam) was the No. 1–selling U.S. pharmaceutical: 2.3 billion tablets of Valium were sold in 1978 alone. Valium was even the subject of a 1966 Rolling Stones hit, “.”
By the 1980s, it became apparent that there was a downside to these medications: patients became tolerant, dependent, and some became addicted to the medications. In older patients an association was noted with falls and cognitive impairment. And while safe in overdoses when they are the only agent, combined with alcohol or opioids, benzodiazepines can be lethal and have played a significant role in the current overdose crisis.
Because of the problems that are associated with their use, benzodiazepines and their relatives, the Z-drugs used for sleep, have, as have the patients who use them and perhaps even the doctors who prescribe them. Still, there are circumstances where patients find these medications to be helpful, where other medications don’t work, or don’t work quickly enough. They provide fast relief in conditions where there are not always good alternatives.
In the Facebook group, “Psychiatry for All Physicians,” it’s not uncommon for physicians to ask what to do with older patients who are transferred to them on therapeutic doses of benzodiazepines or zolpidem. These are outpatients coming for routine care, and they find the medications helpful and don’t want to discontinue them. They have tried other medications that were not helpful. I’ve been surprised at how often the respondents insist the patient should be told he must taper off the medication. “Just say no,” is often the advice, and perhaps it’s more about the doctor’s discomfort than it is about the individual patient. For sleep issues, cognitive-behavioral therapy is given as the gold-standard treatment, while in my practice I have found it difficult to motivate patients to engage in it, and of those who do, it is sometimes helpful, but not a panacea. Severe anxiety and sleepless nights, however, are not benign conditions.
This “just say no, hold the line” sentiment has me wondering if our pendulum has swung too far with respect to prescribing benzodiazepines. Is this just one more issue that has become strongly polarized? Certainly the literature would support that idea, with some physicians writing about how benzodiazepines are underused, and.
I posted a poll on Twitter: Has the anti-benzo movement gone too far? In addition, I started a Twitter thread of my own thoughts about prescribing and deprescribing these medications and will give a synopsis of those ideas here.
Clearly, benzodiazepines are harmful to some patients, they have side effects, can be difficult to stop because of withdrawal symptoms, and they carry the risk of addiction. That’s not in question. Many medications, however, have the potential to do more harm than good, for example ibuprofen can cause bleeding or renal problems, and Fosamax, used to treat osteoporosis, can cause osteonecrosis of the jaw and femur, to name just two.
It would be so much easier if we could know in advance who benzodiazepines will harm, just as it would be good if we could know in advance who will get tardive dyskinesia or dyslipidemia from antipsychotic medications, or who will have life-threatening adverse reactions from cancer chemotherapy with no tumor response. There are risks to both starting and stopping sedatives, and if we insist a patient stop a medication because of potential risk, then we are cutting them off from being a partner in their own care. It also creates an adversarial relationship that can be draining for the doctor and upsetting for the patient.
By definition, if someone needs hospitalization for a psychiatric condition, their outpatient benzodiazepine is not keeping them stable and stopping it may be a good idea. If someone is seen in an ED for a fall, it’s common to blame the benzodiazepine, but older people who are not on these medications also fall and have memory problems. In his book, “Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine, and What Matters Most in the End” (New York: Picador, 2014), Atul Gawande, MD, makes the point that taking more than four prescriptions medications increases the risk for falls in the elderly. Still, no one is suggesting patients be taken off their antidepressants, antihypertensives, or blood thinners.
Finally, the question is not should we be giving benzodiazepines out without careful consideration – the answer is clearly no. Physicians don’t pass out benzodiazepines “like candy” for all the above reasons. They are initiated because the patient is suffering and sometimes desperate. Anxiety, panic, intractable insomnia, and severe agitation are all miserable, and alternative treatments may take weeks to work, or not work at all. Yet these subjective symptoms may be dismissed by physicians.
So what do I do in my own practice? I don’t encourage patients to take potentially addictive medications, but I do sometimes use them. I give ‘as needed’ benzodiazepines to people in distress who don’t have a history of misusing them. I never plan to start them as a permanent standing medication, though once in a while that ends up happening. As with other medications, it is best to use the minimally effective dose.
There is some controversy as to whether it is best to use anxiety medications on an “as-needed” basis or as a standing dosage. Psychiatrists who prescribe benzodiazepines more liberally often feel it’s better to give standing doses and prevent breakthrough anxiety. Patients may appear to be ‘medication seeking’ not because they are addicted, but because the doses used are too low to adequately treat their anxiety.
My hope is that there is less risk of tolerance, dependence, or addiction with less-frequent dosing, and I prescribe as-needed benzodiazepines for panic attacks, agitated major depression while we wait for the antidepressant to “kick in,” insomnia during manic episodes, and to people who get very anxious in specific situations such as flying or for medical procedures. I sometimes prescribe them for people with insomnia that does not respond to other treatments, or for disabling generalized anxiety.
For patients who have taken benzodiazepines for many years, I continue to discuss the risks, but often they are not looking to fix something that isn’t broken, or to live a risk-free life. A few of the patients who have come to me on low standing doses of sedatives are now in their 80’s, yet they remain active, live independently, drive, travel, and have busy social lives. One could argue either that the medications are working, or that the patient has become dependent on them and needs them to prevent withdrawal.
These medications present a quandary: by denying patients treatment with benzodiazepines, we are sparing some people addictions (this is good, we should be careful), but we are leaving some people to suffer. There is no perfect answer.
What I do know is that doctors should think carefully and consider the patient in front of them. “No Benzos Ever For Anyone” or “you must come off because there is risk and people will think I am a bad doctor for prescribing them to you” can be done by a robot.
So, yes, I think the pendulum has swung a bit too far; there is a place for these medications in acute treatment for those at low risk of addiction, and there are people who benefit from them over the long run. At times, they provide immense relief to someone who is really struggling.
So what was the result of my Twitter poll? Of the 219 voters, 34.2% voted: “No, the pendulum has not swung too far, and these medications are harmful”; 65.8% voted: “Yes, these medications are helpful.” There were many comments expressing a wide variety of sentiments. Of those who had taken prescription benzodiazepines, some felt they had been harmed and wished they had never been started on them, and others continue to find them helpful. Psychiatrists, it seems, see them from the vantage point of the populations they treat.
People who are uncomfortable search for answers, and those answers may come in the form of meditation or exercise, medicines, or illicit drugs. It’s interesting that these same patients can now easily obtain “medical” marijuana, and the Rolling Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper” is often replaced by a gin and tonic.
Dr. Dinah Miller is a coauthor of “Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016). She has a private practice and is assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. Dr. Miller has no conflicts of interest.