Beware of Benzodiazepines—
Nasty Time Bomb Ambushes the Unwary
© May 2006 (updated June, 2006) by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
Question: "About 15 years ago I started having panic attacks
and began taking Xanax (Alprazolam) at 1.5 mg/day and have been
on it ever since. Two years ago I had some really bad panic
attacks so my doctor doubled my Xanax medication to 3 mg/day.
Now everything is out of control for some reason. In the past
year or two, in spite of the increased dose, things have been
getting much worse to the point I don’t feel normal any more.
My hearing is a lot worse, I have vertigo and balance problems. I
feel unsteady on my feet. My ears are ringing. They are also
supersensitive to sounds. As a result, I can’t wear a hearing aid
in one ear any more.
I feel like I am only 50% here—kind of like a bad head cold
feeling, or living in a dream state. I feel shaky and out of
sorts and panicky. I feel weird and feel like I am going to pass
out. I can be fine one minute, then BAM—all of a sudden I feel
this odd feeling coming on as if my hearing gets very quiet. I
feel as if I am chilled. I get a tingly feeling in my head, and
then I feel a sort of darkness and closed-in feeling about to
happen. I start to shake and sweat, and I just feel as if I am
I have always thought that my medications could be hurting me
more than helping me. Why did the doctor do this to me? My
neurologist feels I won’t be able to stop taking the Xanax as my
body is now dependent on it. If I would go off this drug, he
feels I would spin out of control—but I’m already out of
For some time I have wanted to try to taper down or get off the
Xanax, but I am scared I will feel worse. How am I going to live
my life without the Xanax? I want to be able to get through the
day, but not like this! I would love to be free and be me again!
What should I do?"—D. M.
Unfortunately, you are not alone. I have heard a number of
similar stories from people who have been taking drugs of the
Benzodiazepine (pronounced ben-zoe-die-AZ-eh-peen) class for a
number of months or years. Eventually, like you, they realize the
drugs are not really helping them, yet when they try to go off
them, the nasty time bomb hidden in these drugs not only ambushes
their ears, but also flips their lives upside down and leaves
them worried about their ability to function in the future.
What are Benzodiazepines?
Benzodiazepines are a class of drugs commonly known as
tranquilizers and sleeping pills. They are predominantly
prescribed for anything associated with anxiety or sleeping
In case you don’t know which drugs belong to the Benzodiazepine
class, some of the more common Benzodiazepines include Xanax
(Alprazolam), Valium (Diazepam), Ativan (Lorazepam),
Rivotril & Klonopin
(Clonazepam) and Halcion (Triazolam). (Brand names are in
while generic names are in bold.) There are at least 20 different
Benzodiazepines. The generic names as you can see above (with few
exceptions) either end in "lam" or "pam."
In addition to the Benzodiazepines, there are three other drugs that although
not Benzodiazepines, have similar effects including the same horrible withdrawal
problems. They are Sonata (Zaleplon), Ambien (Zolpidem)
and Imovane (Zopiclone).
Here’s How It All Begins
When people go to their doctors and are prescribed one of the
Benzodiazepines, the last thing on their minds is that years
later they will be "hooked" on a horror drug. Here’s how it all
Benzodiazepines are only meant to be taken for short periods of
time. They are temporary solutions to problems such as anxiety
and sleeplessness. In fact, safe and appropriate use of
Benzodiazepines is for no longer that 2 to 3 weeks if taken
daily. They were never meant to be the long-term solution to
these problems. Unfortunately, doctors allow multitudes of people
to stay on these drugs for months, and in many cases, years.
When you stay on a Benzodiazepine for too long, bad things begin
to happen. First, the longer you take a Benzodiazepine, the less
effective it becomes. For example, for problems sleeping,
Benzodiazepines are only effective for about 1 to 2 weeks. When
your symptoms begin to get worse, doctors typically increase your
dose. This works for a few more weeks, then you begin to feel
This is because if you take Benzodiazepines for inappropriately
long periods of time, not only does the drug become ineffective,
it also induces drug dependency. What happens is that your body
comes to depend on the drug to function. Thus you are "hooked"
much as a person becomes addicted to certain drugs. (Note:
technically, Benzodiazepines cause dependency, not addiction.) As
a result, you will experience withdrawal symptoms when you reduce
the dose, or stop taking it altogether.
|"The biggest drug-addiction problem in the world doesn't involve
heroin, cocaine or marijuana. In fact, it doesn't involve an illegal
drug at all. The world's biggest drug-addiction problem is posed by
a group of drugs, the Benzodiazepines, which are widely prescribed
by doctors and taken by countless millions of perfectly ordinary
people around the world."
"Drug-addiction experts claim that getting people off the
Benzodiazepines is more difficult than getting addicts off heroin.
The only genuine long-term solution is to be aware of these drugs
and to avoid them like the plague."
"It is more difficult to withdraw people from Benzodiazepines than
it is from heroin. It just seems that the dependency is so ingrained
and the withdrawal symptoms you get are so intolerable that people
have a great deal of problem coming off. The other aspect is that
with heroin, usually the withdrawal is over within a week or so.
With Benzodiazepines, a proportion of patients go on to long term
withdrawal and they have very unpleasant symptoms for month after
month, and can go on for two years or more. Some of the tranquilizer
groups document people who still have symptoms ten years after
The above quotes were taken from the home page of
benzo.org.uk, a web site
dedicated to Benzodiazepine addiction, withdrawal and recovery.
At the same time, the result of this dependency actually makes
your original symptoms worse. For example, Benzodiazepines
eventually make your sleep problems even worse than they were
before you began taking these drugs.
The same thing happens with anxiety. Initially, the
Benzodiazepines help, but if you continue to take them for
extended periods of time, the resulting physical dependency can
actually cause an increase in anxiety—even while taking the same
Second, myriads of side effects begin to emerge. Taking
Benzodiazepines can have several negative side effects on your
ears. For example, those side effects that act on the cochlea
include hearing loss, auditory hallucinations, hyperacusis
(hypersensitivity to sound) and tinnitus (ringing or buzzing in
Those side effects that act on the vestibular system and affect
your balance in one way or another include dizziness, ataxia
(lack of coordination/staggering gait), loss of balance, vertigo
(sensation of movement--usually a spinning sensation) and
nystagmus (eyes jerking horizontally).
In addition to messing up your ears, taking Benzodiazepines can
cause a number of other scary side effects such as anxiety,
fears, feelings of unreality, hypersensitivity to light,
insomnia, lack of concentration, loss of memory, nightmares,
panic attacks, rapid mood changes, shaking, sweating,
depersonalization (a feeling of not knowing who you are),
outbursts of rage or aggression, paranoia, persistent unpleasant
memories, feeling of pins and needles, rapid changes in body
temperature, blackouts and a host of other symptoms.
When I mentioned to the lady in the above story that she likely
would be shocked to learn that almost all of her symptoms, both
ear-related and otherwise, were known side effects of taking
Benzodiazepines, she replied, "I’m scared. Everything you have
said about the drugs I take really hit home."
Third, when you finally decide the Benzodiazepines aren’t doing
you any good any more, and indeed are causing you much more harm
than good, you try to go off them. That is when you discover to
your horror that when you try to go off them, your existing
symptoms intensify and still others appear.
For example, some people get hyperacusis (super-sensitivity to
normal everyday sounds) when they try to go off Benzodiazepines.
In one study of 22 people, 4 (18%) had hyperacusis. Fortunately,
by 3 months, only one person of the 4 still had hyperacusis.
Other people end up with protracted tinnitus when they try to go
off a Benzodiazepine. For example, one man who had taken Diazepam
for 8 years for anxiety, got obnoxious tinnitus just 4 days after
discontinuing Diazepam. His tinnitus persisted for 3 months.
Fortunately, after 6 months, his tinnitus was only occasional and
of short duration, and by 1 year it had completely disappeared.
Another man began to hear high-pitched ringing tinnitus in both
his ears for the first time in his life as he reduced his
Diazepam dose to a low level. Unfortunately, in his case, he
still had tinnitus 1 year later but was learning to cope with it.
The withdrawal side effects can be so incapacitating that some
people choose to stay on these drugs because they cannot cope
with these horrible side effects when they try to stop taking
Benzodiazepines. By doing so, they condemn themselves to a
miserable existence for the rest of their lives.
For example, one man, after taking Diazepam for 12 years for
anxiety had severe tinnitus upon discontinuing Diazepam. In his
case, he discovered he couldn’t stop taking the Diazepam because
of his incapacitating high-pitched intense tinnitus in both his
ears which began each time he reduced his dose of Diazepam.
What’s the Risk?
Used responsibly and taken in the short term to tide you over a
rough spot, Benzodiazepines can do some good. However, so often
these drugs are abused. For example, according to one estimate, 1
person in every 50 people has been taking a Benzodiazepine for
longer than 6 months!
Furthermore, research indicates that 30% to 50% of regular
Benzodiazepine users will develop a dependency to these drugs. In
addition, the longer you take a Benzodiazepine, the greater your
risk of becoming dependent on that drug.
This makes it very difficult to get off Benzodiazepines. In fact,
researchers estimate that between 50% and 80% of people who have
taken Benzodiazepines continually for 6 months or longer will
experience withdrawal symptoms when reducing the dose or stopping
Getting Off Benzodiazepines
Getting on Benzodiazepines is easy, but getting off them once you
have built up a dependence to them is very hard, and for some
people almost impossible. You see, dependence to the
Benzodiazepines is insidious and sneaks up on you without your
even being aware of it—often until it is too late.
Therefore, your first line of defense is knowledge. You now know
that Benzodiazepines are only supposed to be used for short
periods of time—2 to 3 weeks at the most! Any doctor that
prescribes these drugs for longer periods than that is doing you
a disservice, and may be harming you. Thus, refuse to take any
Benzodiazepine for longer than 3 weeks. By doing so, you will
avoid all these withdrawal problems.
Once you finally decide to stop taking a Benzodiazepine, the
range and severity of the withdrawal symptoms will likely take
you by surprise. For many people, the intensity of Benzodiazepine
withdrawal is overwhelming. Unfortunately, there are no
predictors for who will likely suffer severe withdrawal, and who will likely have a mild withdrawal experience.
In order to go off any Benzodiazepine, you will have to taper off
very gradually—under your doctor’s guidance, of course. Reducing
the dose of the drug slowly minimizes the severity of the
However, overcoming the withdrawal side effects of
Benzodiazepines can take many weeks or months, or, for some
people, even years. Usually the length of time someone has been
taking a Benzodiazepine and the amount they have been taking will
have the most impact on how long it takes for their withdrawal symptoms to pass.
|If you want to stop taking Benzodiazepines, read the excellent
manual by Dr. Heather Ashton, one of the foremost authorities in the
world on how to break free from these drugs.
Read her excellent manual
"Benzodiazepines: How They Work and How To Withdraw". Not only
is it free, it's easy to read and packed with the information you
need to help you.
The good news is that if you persist through the agonies of the
withdrawal stage—no matter how long it takes—in the end, as the
lady in the above story expressed it, you will be free and be
If you would like to join an
information and support E-mail list for people who have damaged their ears from
taking ototoxic drugs, type your E-mail address in the box and click on the
Yahoo Groups button. (You can unsubscribe
at any time.)
Subscribe to the Ototoxic-Drug list
About Benzodiazepines. 2005. TRANX—Tranquillizer Recovery and
New Existence. http://www.tranx.org.au/benzodiaz.html.
Ashton, Heather. 2002. Benzodiazepines: How They Work and How To Withdraw.
Bauman, Neil. 2003. Ototoxic Drugs Exposed.
Busto, Usoa, et. al. 1988. Protracted Tinnitus after
Discontinuation of Long-Term Therapeutic use of Benzodiazepines.
New England Journal of Medicine 315:854-859.