Dependence on benzodiazepines lead physicians to coin new diagnosis: The sedatives are considered an underrecognized contributor to public health crisis of drug overdoses

Millions of Americans suffering from anxiety and insomnia are prescribed a class of sedatives known as benzodiazepines.

Known under the popular trade names Xanax, Valium and Ativan, these medications have been widely prescribed beginning in the 1970s. However, long-term treatment with these medications have also been associated with serious clinical risks, including falls, respiratory problems, cognitive impairments and harmful interactions with other medications.

Many physicians are now appropriately working with patients to taper these medications, but the tapers themselves often create a new set of problems: Severe physical withdrawal symptoms such as tremors and high blood pressure; dangerous psychiatric conditions such as depression and suicidal thoughts; and the recurrence of the underlying conditions of anxiety and insomnia that the medication was originally intended to treat. The underlying conditions often return much worse than before.

Now, a group of physician-scientists at Oregon Health & Science University and the VA Portland Health Care System have coined a new term for this phenomenon: Complex persistent benzodiazepine dependence, or CPBD.

“This is really a dangerous situation,” said Christopher K. Blazes, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry in the OHSU School of medicine and the director of OHSU’s addiction psychiatry fellowship. “We now know that long-term benzodiazepine prescribing is rarely indicated, but we are still left with the problem of helping those who have been on these medications for years to safely get off them. The process of discontinuation can be very challenging and even dangerous. There may even be some circumstances, when attempts to discontinue fail, that restarting safe doses may be indicated.”

Blazes and co-authors Linda Peng, M.D., assistant professor of medicine (general internal medicine and geriatrics) in the OHSU School of Medicine, and Thomas W. Meeks, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry in the OHSU School of Medicine and the Portland VA, published a viewpoint in the journal JAMA Psychiatry establishing and clinically defining CPBD.

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