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Deaths From Anxiety Drug Overdoses Rose Fourfold In The Last Two Decades: Study

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The rising number of deaths due to opioid overdose hit a record high in 2014, leaving health experts greatly alarmed. Now, another medication is at the center of yet again increasing numbers of overdose-related mortality.

Researchers in the United States found that deaths from anxiety drug overdoses have increased four times in the last 20 years. More Americans are receiving anxiety medications under the class of drugs called benzodiazepines or "benzos," but they're taking more than the prescribed dose.

Benzos are sometimes combined with opioids as a treatment for chronic pain. But as the quantity of filled prescriptions tripled from 1996 to 2013, the research team discovered that the number of overdoses involving benzos - such as Klonopin, Xanax, Ativan, Valium and others - had also quadrupled.

Dr. Marcus Bachhuber, lead author of the study, said overdosing from benzos is a public health issue that has gone under the radar.

The potential risks of taking benzos are no secret to the public. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that anxiety medications were involved in 30 percent of the overdose deaths in 2013, second only to opioid overdose, which is at 70 percent.

Bacchuber said they had thought prescriptions for benzos would decline or become steady in the late 2000s because as awareness of the risks of opioids were given more attention, it would have also been given to anxiety medications.

However, any hope that prescriptions for benzos would be slowed down has been cut off. Bacchuber said the current trend for benzo-overdose deaths is very concerning.

Benzodiazepine Use In The United States

The research team looked into data on benzos use and found that prescriptions purchased throughout the last two decades increased from 8.1 million prescriptions in 1996 to 13.5 million in 2013. At the same time, they discovered that the death rate from benzos overdose increased from 0.58 deaths per 100,000 adults in 1996 to 3.14 deaths per 100,000 adults in 2013.

Researchers still do not know for sure why the numbers went high, but it may have something to do with more quantities of benzos being prescribed to patients. These patients might be taking higher doses of the drugs each day, taking them for extended periods of time, or acquiring them from sources other than doctors. All of these could increase a person's risk of an overdose.

The danger significantly increases when benzos are combined with opioids, another powerful painkiller, said Dr. Chinazo Cunningham, co-author of the study. She also noted that taking benzos with alcohol elevates the overdose risk.

Dr. Gary Reisfield of the University of Florida, an expert who was not involved in the study, said the findings could help shed light on the issue of benzodiazepines abuse and overdose. He said much attention has been given to the opioid overdose issue, but little has been paid to the shadow epidemic of benzos overdose.

Meanwhile, Bacchuber said it is important for providers and patients to know about alternative treatments for anxiety, as well as the potential dangers of taking benzos.

"Intervention would be to promote alternative medications or talk therapy instead of benzodiazepines," added Bacchuber.

All of these findings are featured in the American Journal of Public Health.

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