Are Benzos Life-Saving?
From time to time I get a message from somebody on the web who takes issue with my criticisms of benzos saying that doctors “cannot do without benzos because they are life-saving.”
Let's Look at the Evidence
I've been thinking of this statement recently and trying to figure out any situation where a benzo could save a life or where no other treatment option was available. I could not think of one instance where a benzo was essential to save a life but I could think of a lot of evidence that shows that benzos are associated with injuries and death. Let's look at the evidence.
Benzos are prescribed for many reasons but primarily to reduce anxiety, to sedate people (pre-operatively and as a hypnotic — for sleep) and as a muscle relaxant. Although seemingly effective in the immediate short term, taking benzos for more that 1–2 weeks can lead to addiction and an intensification of symptoms for which the drug was originally prescribed. In other words, those who have been prescribed benzos for anxiety may find, after a period of time, that their anxiety has intensified. And this is just one of the substantial risks of taking benzos.
There are Alternatives
Although a benzo may be useful as a first and short-term response to somebody having a seizure, there are alternative drugs and benzos are not appropriate for the long term seizure control. Benzos may be a crisis management tool for somebody having an acute anxiety or even psychotic episode however, they are not appropriate for long term use and there are other treatment options available. Cognitive therapy has a great deal of success in addressing anxiety and sleep problems, for example.
The Risks of Benzos are High
On the other hand, benzos frequently lead to injuries and death. They are strongly associated with drug overdoses and suicides because they cause depression, they are heavily implicated in automobile accidents, leading to injuries and death, and they are a major cause of falls and fractured hips among the elderly. Hip fractures often result in premature death. This is all well-researched and proven.
Benzos are associated with elevated rates of pneumonia among the critically ill leading to death and a comprehensive study looking at benzos and other sleeping pills in the British Medical Journal in February 2012 found that receiving a hypnotic prescription was
associated with greater than threefold increased hazard of death even when (a person is) prescribed less than 18 pills a year. This association held in separate analyses for several commonly used hypnotics and for newer shorter-acting drugs.
The authors estimate that in 2010 hypnotics such as benzos may have been associated with 320,000 to 507,000 excess deaths in the United States alone. They conclude by saying that the “meagre benefits” of hypnotics such as benzos do not justify their substantial risks, including increased mortality.
Blame the Patient
It IS true that doctors are dependent on benzos and would find it difficult to do without them. They are “easy” to prescribe as a way of trying to “calm people down,” however; few doctors have to pay the consequences of starting a person on benzos and then dealing with the damage they cause. In most cases doctors are woefully unaware of the risks and like to blame patients, not the drug, for their problems. I like to refer to benzos as “garbage can” drugs…you just give a person a benzo for whatever reason and then get to send them quickly out of the office. They are probably the MOST prescribed drug at an emergency department for any reason.
It is time to challenge this myth that benzos are life-saving. In actual fact they take lives.
More on myths about benzos.
Updated: May 21, 2013