By James J. Cotter, MD, MPH, Regional Medical Director
Benzodiazepines are one of the most used psychotropic medications in the US. Although the indications for short term use include anxiety or sleep disturbances, many adults are prescribed benzodiazepines for years to decades despite warnings against long term use. Side effects of benzodiazepines include sedation and lethargy, impaired cognition and memory, dependency and abuse and increased risk of falls in older adults. Alcohol increases the risks of side effects as does co-prescription with opioid medications.
Long term use of benzodiazepines is problematic and the significant risks of long term use outweigh any potential (and poorly proven) benefits. If benzodiazepines are to be used long term, it is preferable to avoid short acting agents and to use the lowest effective dose. Some benzodiazepines, such as alprazolam, appear more associated with misuse and should be avoided. Patients using short acting benzodiazepines may increase the dose and frequency due to anxiety or restlessness between doses or difficulty sleeping at night. Warning signs for abuse or diversion include escalating dose or frequency, deteriorating function, “lost” pills, or other evidence suggesting misuse of the drug. The risk of dependency and abuse is particularly worrisome on opioids and those individuals with a history of substance use disorders.
In some cases, the patient may notice decreased cognitive function or begin having falls and then ask for help in tapering off the benzodiazepine. One should definitely consider tapering benzodiazepines for your patients who are over 65 years of age, are taking multiple benzodiazepines, or those who have cognitive difficulties and patients with substance or alcohol use disorder.
Once the decision to taper has been made, what methods work best to safely and effectively taper? Assuming this is an outpatient setting and there is no evidence of drug abuse or diversion, there are many algorithms for the safe tapering of benzodiazepines. For patients under 65 years of age, most algorithms recommend switching to a long acting benzodiazepine, such as diazepam. When switching to diazepam, choose a dose equivalent to the short acting agent’s dose. However, the starting dose of diazepam should not exceed 40 mg daily. In older patients, the safest options are lorazepam or temazepam since they do not have active metabolites.
Half Life (hours)
|Dose equivalent to 5 mg diazepam|
If the patient is on a high dose of benzodiazepines (over 40 mg of diazepam or equivalent), it may be possible to initially reduce the dose by as much as 25% and then continue decreasing the dose by 10% per week. Usual therapeutic doses may begin tapering at 10% per week. Side effects of tapering include anxiety and restlessness, agitation, tremors and panic attacks. Long term withdrawal symptoms may include anxiety, confusion, depression and cognition/memory symptoms. Anxiety-related withdrawal symptoms may be mitigated by beginning cognitive behavioral therapy, SSRIs, TCAs or buspirone prior to tapering the benzodiazepine. Insomnia can be “pre-treated” by cognitive behavioral therapy, TCAs and sleep hygiene education.
For patients with a history of seizures or current active drug use, assistance from an addiction specialist may be necessary. Patients with severe mood disorders or suicidality may require psychiatric consultation.
A standardized office based approach to dose reduction of benzodiazepines can be very successful. Studies have shown success achieving complete withdrawal in about half of patients on benzodiazepines and a significant dose reduction in another quarter of benzodiazepine patients. The factors indicating the highest likelihood of success are: a caring clinician, current use of benzodiazepines at a diazepam dose equivalent to 10 mg or less and patients without underlying depression.
- Taper benzodiazepines in patients who are 65 or older, those on multiple benzodiazepines, those with cognitive issues and patients with alcohol or substance use disorder
- Consider non-benzodiazepine treatment for anxiety or sleep disorders prior to tapering benzodiazepines.
- Convert patients under 65 to the long acting diazepam at an equivalent dose, but do not exceed 40 mg of diazepam daily.
- Taper by 10% per week for most patients.
- Get assistance in tapering for patients with substance use disorder, a history of seizures and patients with significant mental health disorders.
Management of benzodiazepine misuse and dependence. Aust Prescr 2015;38:152-5
Benzodiazepine: Use and Taper. Canadian Guideline http://nationalpaincentre.mcmaster.ca/opioid/
Helping Patients Taper from Benzodiazepines. National Center for PTSD 2017