Anxiety Medicines May Cause Neurological Problems

3 min read

June 30, 2023 – More than 90% of people who took drugs commonly prescribed to treat anxiety said they had major life consequences after taking them, and they frequently reported new neurological problems, according to a new study. 

More than half of the people in the study said they had thoughts of suicide or had attempted suicide after using benzodiazepines, which include Xanax, Ativan, Klonopin, and Valium. Researchers noted that more than 30 million people in the U.S. take the drugs each year. Recently, a prominent advisory group recommended that all U.S. adults under the age of 65 be screened for anxiety disorders.

The study was published Thursday in the journal PLOS ONE. Researchers analyzed online survey responses from 1,207 people who were currently taking benzodiazepines, were tapering usage, or had fully discontinued use. Study authors noted that health problems after stopping the use of benzodiazepines have been well known for decades, but the largest previous study only involved 50 people.

“Despite the fact that benzodiazepines have been widely prescribed for decades, this survey presents significant new evidence that a subset of patients experience long-term neurological complications," lead author Alexis Ritvo, MD, MPH, an associate professor of addiction psychiatry at University of Colorado Medicine, said in a statement." This should change how we think about benzodiazepines and how they are prescribed." 

The study found that more than 40% of people who use benzodiazepines go on to experience more than 17 different neurological symptoms that can last for longer than a year. They were usually different than the initial reason for which the people were prescribed the drugs in the first place. Researchers said the duration of the new problems indicated the new issues were more than merely signs of withdrawal.

Survey respondents said the initial reasons they were prescribed benzodiazepines were situational anxiety (44%), insomnia (40%), panic attacks (40%), depression (33%), and generalized anxiety disorder (24%).

The new symptoms reported included low energy, difficulty focusing, memory loss, anxiety and nervousness, sleep problems, light and sound sensitivity, digestive problems, muscle weakness, or body aches. Of the people reporting those symptoms, at least half of them said the problems lasted more than one year.

More than 40% of the people who had one or more of those symptoms said the new issues:

  • significantly affected  their marriage or other relationships
  • contributed to suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide
  • contributed to job loss, being fired, or becoming unable to work
  • resulted in increased medical costs

The authors wrote that the term “withdrawal” is not helpful when studying and treating these symptoms, and their impact on people’s lives. 

They suggested that a new term may be more appropriate. They proposed “benzodiazepine-induced neurological dysfunction,” or BIND.

“Recognizing this condition with a specific medically accepted term may encourage more professional compassion, better treatment, and future research,” researchers wrote. “Any medical condition with many vague or overlapping names or without a name can too easily be misdiagnosed or dismissed as insignificant or nonexistent.”

The study had significant limitations, the authors noted. The respondents self-selected and mainly came from support groups. Researchers were unable to collect independent psychiatric diagnoses. But because their findings align with those of previous small studies as well as extensive anecdotal reports, further action is needed, they wrote.

“Since benzodiazepines are among the most frequently prescribed drugs in the United States, treatments for BIND represent an urgent unmet medical need,” they concluded. “This warrants greater and more in-depth research.”

If you or someone you care about is contemplating suicide, help is available right now. Please dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.