Despite repeated recommendations to limit benzodiazepines to short-term use (2–4 weeks), doctors worldwide are still prescribing them for months or years. This over-prescribing has resulted in large populations of long-term users who have become dependent on benzodiazepines and has also led to leakage of benzodiazepines into the illicit drug market. This review outlines the risks of long-term benzodiazepine use, gives guidelines on the management of benzodiazepine withdrawal and suggests ways in which dependence can be prevented.
Recent literature shows that benzodiazepines have all the characteristics of drugs of dependence and that they are inappropriately prescribed for many patients, including those with physical and psychiatric problems, elderly residents of care homes and those with comorbid alcohol and substance abuse. Many trials have investigated methods of benzodiazepine withdrawal, of which the keystones are gradual dosage tapering and psychological support when necessary. Several studies have shown that mental and physical health and cognitive performance improve after withdrawal, especially in elderly patients taking benzodiazepine hypnotics, who comprise a large proportion of the dependent population.
Benzodiazepine dependence could be prevented by adherence to recommendations for short-term prescribing (2–4 weeks only when possible). Withdrawal of benzodiazepines from dependent patients is feasible and need not be traumatic if judiciously, and often individually, managed.
Department of Psychiatry, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
Correspondence to Professor C.H. Ashton, Department of Psychiatry, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 4LP, UK Tel: +44 191 2226000 ext 6978; fax: +44 191 2226162; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org