The diagnosis and management of benzodiazepine dependence
Purpose of review
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
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,
benzodiazepine dependence, benzodiazepine withdrawal,
prevention of dependence
Curr Opin Psychiatry 18:249–255.#2005 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
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;
Current Opinion in Psychiatry 2005, 18:249–255
#2005 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins
Since their introduction in the 1950s, benzodiazepines
appear to have passed their zenith of medical popularity.
However, they are still prescribed excessively and often
inappropriately. With their reputation perhaps approach-
ing a nadir, at least as prescribed medications for
long-term use, it is timely to review approaches to the
diagnosis and management of dependence on these
The benzodiazepine bonanza
In the late 1970s benzodiazepines became the most
commonly prescribed of all drugs in the world. Their
range of actions – sedative/hypnotic, anxiolytic, anti-
convulsant and muscle relaxant – combined with low
to make them ideal medications for many common con-
ditions (Table 1). The drugs were prescribed long term,
often for many years, for complaints such as anxiety,
depression, insomnia and ordinary life stresses. Benzo-
diazepines were undoubtedly efficacious at first for these
conditions, and apparently harmless – but there was a
sting in the tail.
By the early 1980s long-term prescribed users themselves
had realized that the drugs tended to lose their efficacy
over time and instead became associated with adverse
effects. In particular, patients found it difficult to stop
taking benzodiazepines because of withdrawal reactions
and many complained that they had become ‘addicted’
[1??]. Controlled clinical trials among such patients [2–4]
demonstrated beyond doubt that withdrawal symptoms,
even from regular ‘therapeutic’ doses of benzodiazepines,
Changing definitions of dependence
That benzodiazepines could cause physical dependence
withdrawal syndrome occurred on cessation of regular
use, and doctors were advised to reserve them for
short-term use in minimal dosage [5,6]. However, defini-
tions of drug dependence changed in the 1990s.
Previously, dependence had been defined in terms of
the development of drug tolerance and a withdrawal
syndrome on cessation, but in current classification sys-
tems these two features alone are no longer considered
sufficient for the diagnosis. Present criteria for substance
dependence  include tolerance, escalation of dosage,
continued use despite efforts to stop and knowledge of
adverse effects, other behavioural features, and a with-
drawal syndrome (Table 2). Benzodiazepines meet all
Tolerance and dosage escalation
Tolerance to benzodiazepines develops at different rates
to hypnotic effects develops rapidly, within a few days or
weeks of regular use. Studies in elderly patients indicate
that, when taken over long periods, benzodiazepines
have little effect on sleep [8,9??,10?]. Although some
poor sleepers report continued efficacy of benzodiaze-
pine hypnotics, possibly because they prevent rebound
insomnia (a withdrawal effect), clinical experience shows
that a considerable proportion of hypnotic users gradually
increase their dosage, sometimes to above recommended
levels. It is not uncommon for insomniacs to be taking
two or more nightly benzodiazepines concurrently
Tolerance to the anxiolytic effects of benzodiazepines
develops more slowly, over a few months, and clinical
observations show that long-term use does little to con-
trol, and may even aggravate, anxiety . There is also
evidence of dosage escalation in anxiolytic users. In one
clinical study over 25% of the patients were taking two
benzodiazepines, the second having been added to the
prescription when the first ceased to be effective .
Although some authors recommend long-term use of
[14,15], it is likely that the drugs are preventing with-
drawal symptoms rather than reducing anxiety .
for certain conditions
Tolerance to the anticonvulsant effects of benzodiaze-
pines occurs within a few weeks in a high proportion of
patients with epilepsy  and also to the muscular
relaxant effects when used in patients with spastic dis-
orders. Of particular clinical importance, however, is the
finding that little tolerance develops to the amnesic
effects and other cognitive impairments caused by ben-
zodiazepines. Studies of long-term users have shown
deficits in learning, memory, attention and visuospatial
ability. A metaanalysis of 13 research studies revealed
moderate–large deficits in all 12 of the cognitive domains
tested in long-term benzodiazepine users compared with
controls [18??]. Such effects are most marked in the
elderly in whom they may suggest dementia .
Improvement occurs when the drugs are stopped, but
it may be slow and perhaps incomplete [20??,21].
Escalation of dosage and chronic use of benzodiazepines
cause additional adverse effects including depression,
excessive sedation, leading to falls and fractures, road
traffic and other accidents (especially when combined
with alcohol), and the insidious development of increas-
ing psychological and physical symptoms [13,16,21,22,
23?–25?]. Again, the elderly are most vulnerable to these
effects, especially if taking multiple medications [26??].
Furthermore, benzodiazepines can be lethal in overdose
The existence of a benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome
has been abundantly demonstrated [2–4,29,30]. The
Table 1. Therapeutic actions of benzodiazepines (in short-term
Anxiolytic – relief of anxietyAnxiety and panic disorders,
Muscle spasms, spastic disorders
Fits due to drug poisoning, some
forms of epilepsy, alcohol
Premedication for operations,
sedation for minor surgical
Hypnotic – promotion of sleep
Myorelaxant – muscle relaxation
Anticonvulsant – stops fits,
Amnesia – impairment of
Table 2. Criteria for substance dependencea
1 Tolerance as defined by either a need for markedly increased amounts of the substance to achieve the clinical effect, or markedly diminished
effect with continued use of the same amount of the substance
Withdrawal as defined by either the characteristic withdrawal syndrome for the substance, or the same or similar substance is
taken to avoid withdrawal symptoms
The substance is taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended
There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful attempts to cut down or control substance use
Time is spent in activities necessary to obtain the substance (e.g. visiting multiple doctors)
Important activities are given up or reduced because of substance use
The substance use is continued despite knowledge of having a problem caused or exacerbated by the substance
any time in the same 12-month period. Reprinted with permission from the Diagnotic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, copyright 2000.
American Psychiatric Association .
syndrome can be mild and short-lived or severe and
sometimes protracted . Symptoms include many that
are common to anxiety states in general, as well as
some more characteristic of benzodiazepine withdrawal
(Table 3). Severity is often associated with prolonged or
high-dose use, short-acting potent benzodiazepines, cer-
tain personality types and anxiety/neuroticism [32,33].
The reported incidence varies between 30 and 100% in
different studies, but up to 50% of long-term users
decline to participate in, or drop out of, withdrawal
studies [4,34,35]. Withdrawal symptoms prolong benzo-
diazepine use, which often continues for years after the
initial indication for the drug has passed. Many long-term
users, aware that the drugs are no longer effective or are
causing adverse effects, have tried to stop but have been
unsuccessful because of the emergence of withdrawal
Mechanisms of tolerance and withdrawal
The pharmacological mechanisms underlying benzo-
diazepine tolerance and withdrawal are complex and
still not clear. Present knowledge has recently been
reviewed in detail [36,37]. Tolerance to chronic benzo-
diazepine administration appears to result from neuro-
adaptive processes involving both desensitization of
inhibitory g-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors and
sensitization of excitatory glutaminergic receptors. Both
these systems include multiple receptor subtypes.
Changes in GABA receptors may include conformational
alterations towards a low affinity state for GABA and
uncoupling of benzodiazepine receptors from their sites
on certain GABAAreceptors, followed by internalization
and perhaps long-term effects on intraneural gene
transcription [36,38?]. Changes in the glutaminergic
system mayinclude sensitization
D-aspartate (NMDA) and possibly other receptors
[1??,37]. These adaptations could occur on different time
scales depending on the receptor subtype and brain
region involved, thus accounting for the differing
rates of development of tolerance to various benzodia-
Rapid or abrupt withdrawal of the benzodiazepine once
tolerance has developed exposes the recipient to the
consequences of all these drug-induced adaptations.
The result is underactivity of inhibitory GABA functions
and a surge in excitatory nervous activity, giving rise to
many of the benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms
shown in Table 3. The various receptor changes occur-
ring during tolerance may be slow to reverse and may do
so at different rates, possibly explaining the variable time
of emergence and duration of individual withdrawal
symptoms and sometimes protracted nature of benzodia-
zepine withdrawal .
Diagnosis of benzodiazepine dependence
The key signs of benzodiazepine dependence are with-
drawal symptoms on dosage reduction or discontinua-
tion. However, dependence can often be inferred in
continuing benzodiazepine users from a history of long-
term use, reliance on regular prescriptions, dosage
escalation, unsuccessful attempts to cut down or stop
drug use, and high anxiety levels [39?,40?,41,42??,43].
Chronic benzodiazepine users with a history of other
drug or alcohol dependence are also likely to be depen-
dent . Unfortunately, long-term prescription of
benzodiazepines continues today [45?] and maintains
several overlapping populations of benzodiazepine-
There are three overlapping types of benzodiazepine-
Therapeutic dose dependence
The largest population of benzodiazepine-dependent
patients comprises long-term users who have inadver-
tently become dependent as a result of regular repeat
prescriptions over months or years. The size of this
population is estimated as 500 000 to 1 million in the
UK, 4 million in the US [1??] and several million world-
wide . It is likely that at least 50% of these users are
dependent. A considerable proportion of these patients
are elderly females taking benzodiazepine hypnotics
[8,9??] and it is noteworthy that prescriptions for hyp-
notics (including drugs with similar actions such as
zopiclone) have not declined despite a reduction in
prescriptions for benzodiazepine anxiolytics [39?].
Other long-term prescribed users who are likely to be
dependent are patients with physical and psychiatric
problemsand elderly residents
The diagnosis and management of benzodiazepine dependence Ashton251
Table 3. Some common benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms
Symptoms common to all
Symptoms less common in
anxiety states – relatively
specific to benzodiazepine
Anxiety, panic attacks,
Poor memory and
Dizziness, light headedness
Weakness ‘jelly legs’
Perceptual distortions, sense
Hallucinations (visual, auditory)
Distortion of body image
Tingling, numbness, altered
Formication (skin ‘crawling’)
Sensory hypersensitivity (light,
sound, taste, smell)
Muscle twitches, jerks, fasiculation
Muscle pain, stiffness
Sweating, night sweats
Blurred or double vision
aUsually only on rapid or abrupt withdrawal from high doses of benzo-
Prescribed high-dose dependence
A minority of patients who start on prescribed benzodia-
zepines escalate their dosage excessively. At first they
may persuade their doctors to increase prescriptions, but
on reaching the prescriber’s limits, they may attend
several doctors or hospital departments to obtain further
supplies. When other sources fail they may resort to
Recreational benzodiazepine abuse
The use of benzodiazepines as recreational drugs is a
growing problem . The size of this population is
unknown but estimates suggest about 200 000 people in
the UK alone (population 55 million) and similar or
higher proportions in the US, Europe, Australia and
other countries. Benzodiazepines commonly form part
of a polysubstance abuse pattern. They are taken by at
least half of opiate, amphetamine, cocaine and other
illegal drug users worldwide and by alcoholics [1??,51].
Other users include patients with mental illness and
comorbid other substance abuse [48?,49]. Some people
use benzodiazepines as their primary recreational drug,
bingeing intermittently on high doses or injecting intra-
venously with risk of gangrene, HIV and hepatitis C
Reasons given for taking benzodiazepines recreationally
are that they enhance the ‘high’ obtained from illicit
drugs, alleviate withdrawal effects, serve as ‘downers’
from the effects of stimulant drugs (‘uppers’) and also
produce a ‘kick’ when taken alone in high doses or
injected intravenously. Many illicit benzodiazepine
users become dependent and show typical withdrawal
symptoms which can be severe [52,53]. The tragedy of
recreational benzodiazepine abuse is that it is largely
iatrogenic, resulting from widespread overprescription
of benzodiazepines which increased their general avail-
ability. Major sources of illicit benzodiazepines are from
general practitioner prescriptions and thefts from
chemists or pharmaceutical warehouses . They
are available on the black market [54?] and can be
obtained on the Internet.
Management of benzodiazepine withdrawal
Because of the adverse effects, lack of efficacy and socio-
economic costs of continued benzodiazepine use, long-
term users have for many years been advised to withdraw
if possible or at least to reduce dosage [5,45?]. However,
benzodiazepine withdrawal has often been badly man-
aged and has acquired a reputation as a traumatic pro-
cess for both patients and doctors. This reputation is
largely undeserved if the process is carried out judicious-
ly. The management of withdrawal has been reviewed
by many authors [1??,55–57,58?]. All agree that the key
strategies for successful discontinuation are gradual
dosage tapering and psychological support if necessary.
The rate of dosage reduction varies for different types of
Therapeutic dose users
abrupt withdrawal, especially from high doses, can pre-
cipitate convulsions, acute psychotic states and other
severe reactions (Table 3). The recommended rate of
tapering for patients on therapeutic doses of benzodia-
zepine is withdrawal in steps of about one-eighth to
one-tenth of the daily dose every 1–2 weeks [59?,60].
Over-rapid tapering such as fixed dosage reductions of
25–50% every 1 or 2 weeks or faster, especially in
patients taking potent or rapidly eliminated benzodia-
zepines (Table 4), increases the likelihood of other
withdrawal symptoms, dropouts from trials, need for
psychological support and later relapse [11??,12?,35].
For this reason, the rate of withdrawal should be indivi-
factors such as dosage and type of benzodiazepine, rea-
stresses and amount of available support. Various authors
have suggested optimal times of 6–8 weeks for with-
drawal but some patients may require a year or more
[1??,59?]. Ideally, after receiving advice and information
from the physician and giving full consent, the patient
should be in control of his/her own personal reduction
rate and proceed at whatever pace is tolerable. A
personalized approach is likely to result in fewer patients
dropping out or declining to participate in withdrawal
In general practice settings, even minimal intervention
such as a letter with an information sheet or a single brief
consultation can be effective in reducing or stopping
benzodiazepine use without adverse effects. In one
Table 4. Approximate equivalent doses and elimination half-
lives of benzodiazepines
aClinical potency for hypnotic or anxiolytic effects may vary between
individuals; equivalent doses are approximate.
users, within 6 months such measures resulted in signifi-
cant dosage reduction or complete cessation [9??]. The
advice in the letter sent to patients was simply ‘try
reducing by half a tablet every few weeks’. Those who
reduced dosage by 25% or more showed improvement in
mental and physical health, reported no withdrawal
symptoms or sleep problems, and required fewer medical
consultations. In another controlled general practice
study, 192 elderly hypnotic users underwent a tapered
dosage programme over 8–9 weeks using placebo .
Eighty percent had successfully withdrawn by 6 months.
These patients showed improvements in cognitive and
psychomotor performance and did not differ in sleep or
withdrawal symptoms from a control group who contin-
ued taking benzodiazepines.
For some patients, particularly those taking benzodia-
zepines for anxiety or using potent benzodiazepines
(lorazepam, alprazolam, clonazepam) (Table 4), there
are advantages in conducting the withdrawal by using
diazepam. The slow elimination of this drug ensures a
gradual fall in blood concentration while its availability in
low-dosage forms permits small dosage reductions. Con-
version from other benzodiazepines to diazepam can be
conducted in stages, and it is important to allow for
equivalent potencies between different benzodiazepines
(Table 4). Full details and examples of withdrawal sche-
dules from different benzodiazepines at various doses are
available on the Internet  and other references
A different withdrawal approach is required for high-dose
benzodiazepine abusers in whom benzodiazepine use
often forms a part of polydrug abuse pattern. These
patients may need in-patient detoxification for the pri-
mary drug and a fairly rapid withdrawal of the benzodia-
zepine, with diazepam substitution and tapering over 2–
3 weeks being usual [52,53]. The development of con-
vulsions can usually be prevented by moderate doses of
diazepam (10 mg), but some authors report benefit from
Many drugs have been investigated for their ability to
attenuate benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms, but
none has proved generally useful for patients dependent
on therapeutic doses [1??]. Drugs tested include anti-
depressants [34,63], b-blockers , buspirone [64,65],
carbamazepine and other anticonvulsants [61,62,66?],
flumazenil [1??,67,68], captodiamine [69?], gabapentin
 and others are under investigation [71,72?,73?].
Nonbenzodiazepine GABA receptor agonists such as
zopiclone relieve withdrawal symptoms but are contra-
indicated since they have the same disadvantages as
The degree of psychological support required during
withdrawal is variable and may range from a single brief
consultation or letter [9??] to more formal cognitive,
behavioural or other therapies directed towards anxiety
management and stress-coping strategies [1??,56]. Sup-
port when needed should be available both during and
after withdrawal since patients may remain vulnerable to
stress for some months. Information about withdrawal
symptoms should be supplied and referral to a support
organization is often helpful.
Outcome of withdrawal
With carefully managed withdrawal and adequate psy-
chological support in motivated patients, the success
rate for stopping benzodiazepines can be 70–80%
[8,13,34,35]. Successful cessation need not be affected
by duration of use, type or dosage of benzodiazepines,
severity of symptoms, psychiatric history or personality
disorder, although symptom severity is greater in anxious
individuals [13,32,33,65]. Relapse rates 1–5 years after
withdrawal vary between 8 and 57% in different studies
[8,11??,13,34,75] but are probably minimized by using
individualized withdrawal programmes. Some patients
revert temporarily to benzodiazepine use after with-
drawal but most stop again or considerably reduce
Prevention of benzodiazepine dependence can be
achieved by adherence to official recommendations to
limit prescriptions to short-term use (2–4 weeks), or as
intermittent brief courses or occasional doses [5,6].
Although prescribing of benzodiazepines has declined
substantially since 1988, 30% of GP prescriptions in the
UK are still for 56 or more tablets [45?] and many
physicians in Europe, the US and Australia continue to
prescribe them long term. Particular care should be taken
in prescribing benzodiazepines for vulnerable patients
such as those with alcohol or drug dependence, and
doctors should be aware that prescriptions may enter
the illicit market. Benzodiazepines are not indicated
for long-term treatment of depression and when used
for chronic psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia,
bipolar affective disorder, anxiety disorders and chronic
insomnia, clinicians should examine the risk–benefit
ratio at an early stage so that the risks of dependence
can be balanced against any therapeutic benefits [76–
79,80?]. Finally, doctors should avoid using nonbenzo-
diazepine hypnotics and anxiolytics such as zopiclone,
zolpidem and zaleplon in benzodiazepine-dependent
patients since these drugs can also cause dependence
The diagnosis and management of benzodiazepine dependence Ashton 253
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