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What Is Benzodiazepine Withdrawal?

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  • Written By: Marco Sumayao
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 26 November 2016
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Benzodiazepine withdrawal occurs when an individual dependent on the drug suffers a sudden, significant drop in dosage. Withdrawal symptoms are widely varied and can include gastrointestinal tract problems, respiratory system issues, and sexual dysfunction. Alterations in the brain's chemistry as a result of dependence and withdrawal can also result in perceptual malfunctioning, mood disorders, and impaired cognitive functions. The incidence of developing withdrawal symptoms is unpredictable; some studies report that only 15 percent of patients taking benzodiazpine for a year suffer from withdrawal when taken off the drug, while others report a 100-percent withdrawal rate. Treatment for benzodiazepine withdrawal often takes several months to a year, but success rates are high—results from several studies report 65- to 100-percent success rates.

By enhancing the effect of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), an inhibitory neurotransmitter, benzodiazepine has several benefits for patients with disorders associated with excessive neural activity. The psyhoactive drug is most widely used as a sedative, although it is popular as an anti-anxiety, or anxiolytic, treatment as well. Patients suffering from sleep disorders use the drug for its hypnotic, or sleep-inducing, qualities. Benzodiazepine can also be used as an anticonvulsant for patients suffering from tremors and shocks. The GABA-enhancing effect, however, is the main cause of dependence and subsequent benzodiazepine withdrawal when treatment is stopped.

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Under prolonged periods of benzodiazepine treatment, the brain adapts to the medication. Since the inhibitory GABA's effects are improved by the medication, the brain adjusts by becoming more excitable. If this adaptation occurs before the treatment ends, the enhanced stimulation of the brain in the absence of the drug leads to the numerous benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms.

Symptoms of benzodiazepine withdrawal include abdominal pain and cramps, difficulty breathing, and the inability to maintain sexual arousal. In addition, patients might experience tactile hallucinations, depression, and decreased mental acuity. Patients suffering from withdrawal report feeling joint and muscle pain, sudden and frequent mood swings, and even personality shifts. In women, benzodiazepine withdrawal has been known to manifest as menstrual irregularity and dysmenorrhea.

Patients suffering from benzodiazepine withdrawal are slowly weaned off the drug in order to normalize their systems and prevent any more harmful shocks. The drug's dosage is usually split with another sedative, such as diazepam. The total dosage of medication is lowered by small increments on a fixed schedule, with both the increment size and timing dependent on the severity of withdrawal symptoms. Treatment can take anywhere from a few months to over a year, but success rates are highly favorable.

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