The number of overdose deaths related to benzodiazepines has increased dramatically in the last decade. In a study in JAMA Network Open, Research Fellow in Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital Sumit D. Agarwal, MD, and professor of health care policy Bruce E. Landon, MD, MD, MSc investigate rising benzodiazepine visit rates and how to address them.
Benzodiazepines are generally used to treat anxiety and other conditions such as insomnia, seizures and neuropathic pain. For the current study, Agarwal and Landon examined data on 386,457 outpatient visits from 2003 to 2015 and found the proportion that involved a benzodiazepine prescription doubled from 3.8 percent to 7.4 percent. They also found that visits that included a benzodiazepine doubled from 2003-2016 and that the rate at which benzodiazepine and opioid prescriptions were given in a single visit has quadrupled.
The amount of visits related to insomnia, anxiety, and neurological conditions remained stable, but benzodiazepine visits involving treating back and chronic pain more than doubled. The study found that while benzodiazepine visits did not change among psychiatrists, all other physicians, including primary care physicians, had higher numbers of visits with benzodiazepine prescriptions.
Opioids are becoming unpopular among prescribers, which may lead to increased use of other potentially dangerous drugs such as benzodiazepines. As these drugs are used to treat multiple conditions, they may easily be over-prescribed if the physician is not cognizant of their potential risks.
As the opioid epidemic has shown, addressing prescribing patterns may be a key in reducing benzodiazepine overdoses. Better information on the correct usage of these drugs could help physicians and policy makers make more informed decisions on how to deal with the rise in in benzodiazepine-related morbidity and mortality. While the rising rate of overdoses involving benzodiazepines is likely multifactorial, addressing prescribing patterns may help curb the growing use of these drugs.