08/22/17

It Takes Away Your Soul

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In case you missed it in July, there was an annual day of awareness … for the problems that result from the prescription and use of benzodiazepines. World Benzodiazepine Awareness Day (W-BAD) is on July 11th. The first W-BAD was in 2016, so it’s just getting started. The need for greater awareness of the adverse effects from benzos can be seen in the 2016 W-BAD promotional video, here. It’s over 24 minutes long, so be prepared to spend some time. If that’s too much time for you to take at the moment, here’s one take away quote from Wendy in Melbourne Australia about her experiences while on and then getting off of benzos: “It takes away your soul.”

I was pleasantly surprised to see an extended quote on the dangers of benzodiazepines from Dr. Neil Capretto was used in the 2016 W-BAD video. Dr. Capretto is the Medical Director for Gateway Rehabilitation Center, a drug and alcohol treatment program I’m familiar with in Western Pennsylvania, Dr. Capretto said:

People were innocently put on this medication [benzodiazepines] and in some instances it works out well. [But] there is a significant risk and we see it all of the time. Many people who have lost many years of their lives, who have lost jobs, been on the verge of suicide. I’m aware of cases where people have committed suicide. The drug can be dangerous, it can be fatal. During withdrawal the heart rate can go up, they may have a seizure, sometimes the body temperature can go up and in some cases it’s fatal.

The W-BAD video has individuals from around the world, telling about their experiences while using benzos, when tapering off them, and the ongoing protracted withdrawal experiences they suffered through. For some individuals, those adverse effects lasted months and in some cases were permanent. There were three W-BAD objective listed towards the end if the video, which are listed below.

To encourage the establishment of a mandatory maximum prescribing period of no more than 4 week, including taper period (based on the Committee on Safety of Medicines’ 2-4 week prescribing guidelines).

To encourage the establishment of ‘specialized’ withdrawal facilities for those who so desperately need them.

To encourage the provision of proper training for doctors and medical staff and to help them learn more about proper tapering practices to discontinue the drugs as well as about the serious implications of benzodiazepines.

The Committee on Safety of Medicines is an independent advisory committee that advises the UK Licensing Authority on the quality and safety of medicines. In 2005 it was replaced by the Commission on Human Medicines, combining the functions of the Committee on Safety of Medicines and the Medicines Commission. The Committee issued guidelines for UK physicians and medical professionals on the use of benzodiazepines in January of 1988. Pause for a minute. These concerns were evident almost thirty years ago.

The original document said there had been concerns regarding benzodiazepine dependence for several years, and cited a British Medical Journal article from 1980 to support the claim. It noted that withdrawal symptoms could include anxiety, confusion, insomnia, depression, and perceptual disorders. These symptoms could occur even when following therapeutic doses over SHORT periods of time (emphasis in the original). “These may sometimes be difficult to distinguish from the symptoms of the original illness.”

They discouraged the use of benzodiazepines to treat insomnia, unless it was severe and subjecting the person to extreme distress. If used, they should be used intermittently. “The use of benzodiazepines to treat short-term ‘mild’ anxiety is inappropriate and unsuitable.” When the anxiety is severe, disabling or subjecting the person to unacceptable distress they can be used for short-term relief—“two to four weeks only.”  The Committee then gave the following quote from the above noted article in the March 29, 1980 issue of the British Medical Journal. The point of all this is these concerns and recommendations with benzodiazepines have been know since the 1980s, but have been largely ignored on a global scale, as illustrated in the 2016 W-BAD video linked above.

The committee further noted that there was little convincing evidence that benzodiazepines were efficacious in the treatment of anxiety after four months’ continuous treatment. It considered that an appropriate warning regarding long-term efficacy be included in the recommendations, particularly in view of the high proportion of patients receiving repeated prescriptions for extended periods of time.It further suggested that patients receiving benzodiazepine therapy be carefully selected and monitored and that prescriptions be limited to short-term use.

Finding a “specialized” withdrawal facility can be difficult. Be careful of what the centers promise and their cost. Do your homework when searching for a “specialized benzodiazepine withdrawal facility.” A mere “benzodiazepine withdrawal facility” search will net multiple residential drug and alcohol treatment centers. Not every person who has been using benzodiazepines long enough to need medical inpatient detoxification support has been abusing benzos, and treatment at a drug and alcohol treatment center is often inappropriate. Plus the withdrawal protocol is often too rapid.

The New Beginnings Recovery Center in North Palm Beach Florida is an example of a treatment program that uses a protracted withdrawal method. I have no experience with their treatment program and can’t endorse it. But what I’ve seen of their methods fits with a patient or client-centered method of withdrawal, which I do think is best with benzodiazepines. Here is a link to the New Beginnings page on their Benzodiazepine Withdrawal Treatment Program. Here is a short YouTube video clip discussing the Heather Ashton Method for benzodiazepine withdrawal used at the New Beginnings Recovery Center.

Going slowly, at a pace controlled by the individual withdrawing from benzos, is the method most likely to produce positive results. It will take several weeks, months, and even in some cases, years. I’ve run across two medical professionals who advocate for this protracted withdrawal method, Dr. Peter Breggin and Dr. Heather Ashton.

I am personally familiar with Dr. Breggin’s work and have read many of his resources, including two that would be helpful for benzodiazepine withdrawal: Your Drug May Be Your Problem and Psychiatric Drug Withdrawal. Start with Your Drug May Be Your Problem for personal information on the process and try Psychiatric Drug Withdrawal for more technical discussions, if that’s needed. Both books discuss withdrawal from multiple classes of psychiatric drugs. There is a YouTube channel for Peter Breggin. He also has his own website with more information at: breggin.com.

The Ashton Protocol, or Ashton Method, is new to me, but from what I’ve reviewed it fits with the protracted withdrawal process I’m familiar with in Dr. Breggin’s material. Here is a YouTube clip, “Dr. Heather Ashton- Benzodiazepine Withdrawal.” You can see several other YouTube videos about her method with a “Dr. Heather Ashton” search on YouTube. Dr. Ashton also wrote “Benzodiazepeines: How They Work and How to Withdraw,” which has become known as “The Ashton Manual.”  A digital copy is available here on benzo.org.uk for free. A printed copy can be ordered.

From the brief review I’ve done so far, it seems likely to be a very helpful resource for individuals looking for assistance in getting off of benzodiazepines. Within a documentary by Shane Kenny, “The Benzodiazepine Medical Disaster,” which is linked below, Dr. Asthton said she wrote the manual for patients who weren’t getting help from the doctors. They seemed to know better what to do than the doctors. “It was for them. And the interesting thing is, although patients from all over the world have snapped it up, doctors still don’t read it.”

Protracted withdrawal will extend far beyond any acute medical withdrawal phase, and ongoing medical and therapeutic support on an outpatient basis is advisable. Getting medical support for protracted benzodiazepine withdrawal as an outpatient could be challenging. You may have to educate a willing physician on the necessity of an extended, rather than a shorter-term withdrawal. You can use the material recommended above from Peter Breggin and Heather Ashton to first educate yourself, and then any physician or psychiatrist willing to work with you on a protracted benzodiazepine withdrawal.

There are also many online information and support groups, such as: benzo.org.uk, which as been around since July of 2000. “Benzo.org.uk is dedicated to sufferers of iatrogenic benzodiazepine tranquilliser addiction.” In addition to the link to The Ashton Manual noted above, it has a wealth of information, including a FAQ document and links to online benzodiazepine withdrawal support groups on a support page. They also called out a specific support group called BenzoBuddies.

BenzoBookReview.com is a website with a list of books on benzodiazepine withdrawal. Information there includes memoirs and how-to guide books, with reviews and summaries of each book. The site is for anyone interested in information about benzodiazepine misuse and how to help benzodiazepine sufferers. That includes their families, doctors, psychologists, psychotherapists, drug counselors, and all professionals.

Other helpful resources include: Benzodiazepine Information Coalition, Beyond Meds, and Mad in America. Search the Mad in America site for “benzodiazepines.” Information on their “Withdrawal Resources” page will include a scientific literature review on withdrawal from benzodiazepines, as well as other classes of psychotropic drugs. Mad in America linked a short video by the group Benzodiazepine Recovery, “Benzodiazepine Withdrawal Symptoms” where individuals shared their top three most debilitating benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms.

There are several helpful YouTube resources, such as Benzo Brains, by Jocelyn Pedersen. W-BAD also has a YouTube channel and a website: w-bad.org. Their YouTube channel has a short informational video (almost 3 minutes) on the risks of taking benzodiazepines. Start there to begin the education process with someone.

Look under Resources on w-bad.org for the Documentaries link. You will find information on “As Prescribed” by Holly Hardman, which is in production. Scrolling further down you will see a link to another documentary, “The Benzodiazepine Medical Disaster” by Shane Kenny. It features an in depth interview with Heather Ashton. Also remember what Melanie said about why this information on benzodiazepines is so important: “It takes away your soul.”

10/18/16

Dancing with the Devil

© choreograph | stockfresh.com

© choreograph | stockfresh.com

I once knew a woman who had an anxiety disorder. She also abused benzodiazepines. She was able to conjure up a panic attack in a doctor’s office and walk out with a prescription for the benzo of her choice. At one time, she had four concurrent prescriptions for these anti-anxiety medications. Another person I know of has a ten-year history of using benzodiazepines at close to the maximum recommended dose. When he had an unexpected short-term hospital stay, the treating physicians were reluctant to continue prescribing benodiazepines at such a high level while he was in the hospital. When he returned home, in case his medical issue resulted in another unexpected stay, he put together an emergency hospital kit with various things—including extra benzodiazepines.

A study published in the American Journal of Public Health in April of 2016 found that benzodiazepines were the second most common drug in prescription overdose deaths for 2013. Given the common knowledge of the potential dangers of benzodiazepines and people becoming more aware of opioids, Marcus Bachhuber and a team of researchers thought that their study would show a steady of declining pattern for prescribing benzodiazepines. But they found exactly the opposite. Between 1999 and 2013 there was an increase of 30% among adult Americans who filled a benzodiazepine prescription. In addition, the amount of medication within a prescription doubled over the same time period.

Bachhuber was quoted by CNN as saying the study’s findings were very concerning. The risk of overdose and death from benzodiazepines alone is said to be generally lower in otherwise healthy adults. But in combination with other drugs like alcohol or opioids, they can be lethal.

Future research should examine the roles of these potential mechanisms to identify effective policy interventions to improve benzodiazepine safety. In particular, as underscored by several recent reports, interventions to reduce concurrent use of opioid analgesics or alcohol with benzodiazepines are needed.

The overdose problem with benzos has been overshadowed by the problems with prescription opioids. Writing for CNN, Carina Storrs said: “The current study could help shine a light on the problem of benzodiazepine abuse and overdose.” Dr. Gary Reisfield, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Florida, referred to the problem with benozdiazepines as a “shadow epidemic”:

Much attention has been paid to the explosion of prescription opioid prescribing and the associated morbidity and mortality. Much less attention has been paid to the shadow epidemic of benzodiazepine prescribing and its consequences.

A 2015 study by Jones and McAninch found that emergency department visits and overdose deaths involving opioids and benzodiazepines increased significantly between 2004 and 2011. Overdose deaths from combining the two classes of drugs rose each year from 18% in 2004 to 31% in 2011. This rate increased faster than the percentages of people filling prescriptions and the quantity of pills in the prescriptions.

As Dr. Indra Cidambi wrote in “Are We Ignoring an Escalating Benzodiazepine Epidemic?”,  she observed with increasing alarm the rising rate of concurrent use/abuse of benzos among opiate users. She pointed to two possible factors driving this trend. First, some opiate abusers use benzos to “spike” the euphoria from their opiates. Second, patients often receive their prescriptions from two different physicians. She said that it is “notoriously difficult” for doctors to refuse to prescribe these two medications.

Unfortunately, and ironically, pain and anxiety are neither verifiable nor quantifiable through medical testing! Consequently, self-reported symptoms by patients are the sole basis on which prescriptions for these medications are written, enabling individuals addicted to these medications to obtain them fairly easily.

Dr. Cidambi recommended the establishment of a national database for physicians to verify whether or not a patient has been prescribed one of these medications before prescribing or filling a prescription for the other. Second, she said physicians should develop limited, short-term treatment plans from the beginning to treat noncancerous pain with opiates and anxiety with benzodiazepines.

Studies have shown the decreasing efficacy of long-term treatment for pain with opioid medications, and evidence-based treatment protocols for benzodiazepines clearly indicate that long-term use of benzodiazepines is not recommended.

In “Benzos: A Dance with the Devil,” Psychiatrist Kelly Brogan described some of her work helping patients taper off of benzodiazepines. A woman who had been placed on Remeron (an antidepressant) and Klonopin (a benzodiazepine) for eight years said of her original prescriber: “He never once told me there might be an issue with taking these meds long-term. In fact, he told me I probably needed them after I tried stopping them cold turkey and felt so sick I thought I was dying.” Brogan said no one ever discussed with this woman or her patients the true risks, benefits and alternatives to psychiatric medications like benzodiazepines, “perhaps because we as clinicians are not told the full story in our training.”

She went on to quote from a paper by another psychiatrist, Peter Breggin, on the risks of benzodiazepines, which include: cognitive dysfunction that can range from short-term memory impairment and confusion to delirium; “disinhibition or loss of impulse control, with violence toward self or others, as well as agitation, psychosis, paranoia and depression.” There can also be severe withdrawal symptoms, ranging from anxiety and insomnia to psychosis and seizures after abruptly stopping long-term larger doses. The person can re-experience their pre-drug symptoms as they taper. These so-called rebound symptoms of anxiety, insomnia and others serious emotional reactions can be more intense than they were before drug treatment began. And don’t forget dependency or abuse.

Psychiatrist Allen Frances, the former chair of the DSM-IV, recently wrote: “Yes, Benzos Are Bad for You.” He introduced his article by saying that he was going to say some very negative things about benzodiazepines in the hope that doctors think twice before prescribing them and patients are discouraged from taking them. Benzos were wonder drugs in the 1960s. Anyone remember the 1966 song, “Mother’s Little Helper,” by the Rolling Stones? These drugs were reputed to be safe, and so were used for a variety of “ills,” such as anxiety, alcohol use disorders (yes, really), to take the edge off of agitation in dementia, and to help people sleep. “Initially we were pretty oblivious to the risk of addiction.” So benzodiazepines quickly became the most prescribed medications in America.

A second craze began in the 1980s with the release of Xanax. Frances said the dose to treat panic disorder was “dangerously close” to the dose leading to addiction. “This should have scared off everyone from using Xanax, but it didn’t.” It remains a best seller, with its own “brand” that now leads to fentanyl be pressed into counterfeit Xanax pills. See “Buyer Beware Drugs” and Paul Gaita’s article on fake Xanax laced with fentanyl.

The real wonder of the benzos is that sales continue to boom, despite their having so little utility and no push from pharma marketeering (because patents have run out – thereby decreasing costs and profits.) Between 1996 and 2013, the percentage of people in the U.S. using benzos jumped more than one-third from an already remarkable 4.1 to 5.6 percent. Especially troubling is that benzo use is ridiculously high (nearly one out of ten) in the elderly, the group most likely to be harmed by them.

Frances said the beneficial uses of benzodiazepines can be counted on the fingers of one hand: short-term agitation in psychosis, mania and depression; catatonia; “as needed” use for times of special stress, like fear of flying, or for sleep. While they should be used very short term, in real life most people take them long term—“in doses high enough to be addicting, and for the wrong reasons. . . . Benzos are very easy to get on, almost impossible to get off.”

In addition to the harm from overdoses, Frances described the painful and dangerous withdrawal symptoms, which he said are a “beast.” Common symptoms are irritability, insomnia, tremors, distractibility, sweating and confusion. “The anxiety and panic experienced by people stopping benzos is usually much worse than the anxiety and panic that initially led to their use.”  Concurrent use or abuse of alcohol or other drugs, like opioids, complicates withdrawal even further.

The most insidious issues with benzos for Frances, is how they effect brain functioning. Especially with the elderly, ongoing benzo use can be devastating. Many elderly begin their downward spiral to death and disability from falls—that happen from their benzo use! He said: “If you meet an elderly patient who seems dopey, confused, has memory loss, slurred speech, and poor balance, your first thought should be benzo side effects — not Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.” See “Sedating Seniors” for more information on this topic. It’s been over 30 years since he last prescribed a benzo for anxiety.

The tough question is what to recommend for those many unfortunates already suffering the tyranny of benzo addiction. Should they stay the course to avoid the rigors and risks of withdrawal or should they make the great effort to detox? This is an individual decision that can’t be forced on someone. But the longer you are on them, the harder it gets to stop, and the cognitive side effects of benzos create more and more dysfunction as your brain ages. The best bet is to stick with a determined effort to detox, however long and difficult, under close medical supervision. On a hopeful note, some of the happiest people I have known are those who have overcome their dependence on benzos.

So it was encouraging to see that the FDA will require class-wide changes in drug labeling to bring attention to the dangers of combining opioids and benzodiazepines. The changes will include boxed warnings on nearly 400 products with information on the risks of combining these medications. The FDA Commissioner, Robert Califf said: “It is nothing short of a public health crisis when you see a substantial increase of avoidable overdose and death related to two widely used drug classes being taken together.” He implored health care professionals to carefully and thoroughly evaluate on a patient-by-patient basis whether the benefits outweigh the risks when using these drug classes together.

Used alone or in conjunction with opiates, benzodiazepines are potentially lethal and addictive. A too sudden withdrawal from benzodiazepines can be fatal, where the same is rarely true with opiates. They work quickly and effectively for anxiety and sleep problems and yet they can have a multitude of side effects, including addiction. Did I say they are addictive? Using benzodiazepines has become a dance with the devil for too many unsuspecting individuals … those that are still alive to regret it, that is.

This article previously appeared on the addiction and recovery website “The Fix” under the title of “Dangerous Dance.”