In the Shadow Of The Opioid Crisis, Anti-Anxiety Drugs Are Taking Lives

By Bryan Le 02/26/18

A hidden epidemic could be growing away from media attention.

hand giving drugs in plastic bag
Another prescription crisis may be bubbling.

While they haven’t grabbed headlines like opioids, benzodiazepines such as Valium and Xanax are also habit-forming and, as Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego has seen, can be just as lethal.

Dr. Roneet Lev, the director of the Scripps Mercy Hospital emergency department, says benzodiazepines are responsible for more drug-related deaths in San Diego County than people may expect.

“That comes from people who come into our trauma center from car accidents because they’re on benzodiazepines, people who come in because they’re falling down, because that affects their balance and coordination on benzodiazepines,” she said. “We’ve seen terrible withdrawals, when they’re used to having it, with seizures, that end up in the ICU.”

In regards to drug-related deaths by legal prescriptions, benzodiazepines are not too far behind opioids. “Number one prescribed drug associated with death is oxycodone, then hydrocodone, the number three, benzodiazepine,” Dr. Lev said.

This surge in benzodiazepine-related deaths isn’t local to San Diego County. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), deaths involving the anti-anxiety drug have more than quadrupled between 2002 and 2015. They are especially dangerous when paired with opioid painkillers.

“The benzodiazepines themselves can cause respiratory depression, or your breathing slow down, and so can opioids," said Nathan Painter, an associate professor in pharmacy at UC San Diego. "So when you combine them, especially in the case of not using them on a regular basis, or being new to the benzo or the opioid, if you give too much, or combine it with other things like alcohol or other medications, then it can cause that breathing to slow down, or even stop.”

According to the San Diego County Medical Examiner, 83% of benzodiazepine-related deaths also involved opioids. Worse, many of these people may have just been following instructions as prescribed by their doctor.

“Because both drugs of them independently can cause problems, and a lot of times, the physicians that are prescribing them aren’t necessarily aware of all the drugs that are onboard, and may not be as conservative or as slow in starting the medicines as without that knowledge,” said Painter.

The Veterans Association Healthcare System has to deal with this problem in particular, as many veterans use both benzodiazepines and opioids. 

“Anxiety related to their combat time, problems with sleep, post-traumatic stress disorder. And traditionally these conditions benzodiazepines have been used to treat,” said Dr. James Michelsen, a doctor at the VA. “Additionally, many of our veterans came back with physical wounds, as well.”

The problem comes from a lack of communication between networks of doctors, which could happen if a veteran visits a non-VA doctor. But solutions won’t be easy to implement, as benzodiazepines are some of the most prescribed drugs in the United States.

It’s not just veterans and hospitals that have problems with benzodiazepines, the music industry has a problem too.

Rapper Lil Xan is on a mission to get kids off Xanax and let them know that despite the image previously marketed by him, and currently marketed by musicians like him, that Xanax abuse isn’t cool.

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Bryan Le grew up in the 90's, so the Internet is practically his third parent. This combined with a love for journalism led him to The Fix. When he isn't fulfilling his duties as Editorial Coordinator, he's obsessing over fancy keyboards he can't justify buying. Find Bryan on LinkedIn or Twitter