Treating alcohol withdrawal with benzodiazepines – Safe if mindful

Alcohol withdrawal can lead to some pretty horrible side effects

Contributing co-author: Andrew Chen

Alcohol withdrawal can be extremely unpleasant (see here for an overview). Symptoms vary from person to person, but most people will experience some negative symptoms of alcohol withdrawal if they try to stop drinking after long term use.

Mild to moderate symptoms include headache, nausea, vomiting, insomnia, rapid heart rate, abnormal movements, anxiety, depression, and fatigue. Severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include hallucinations, fever, and convulsions (known as DT’s or delirium tremens). Most people undergoing alcohol detox do not require hospitalization, but in severe cases, hospitalization may be necessary (1). Since their introduction in the 1960s, benzodiazepines have been the drug of choice for treating severe cases of alcohol withdrawal.

Benzodiazepines, or benzos for short, are a class of psychoactive drugs that work to slow down the central nervous system by activating GABA receptors. This provides a variety of useful tranquilizing effects. Aside from relieving symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, benzodiazepines are also commonly prescribed to treat insomnia, muscle spasms, involuntary movement disorders, anxiety disorders, and convulsive disorders.

The most common regimen for treating alcohol withdrawal includes 3 days of long-acting benzodiazepines on a fixed schedule with additional medication available “as needed.” (2)

The two most commonly prescribed benzos are chlordiazepoxide and diazepam. Chlordiazepoxide (Librium) is preferred for its superior anticonvulsant capabilities while diazepam (Valium) is preferred for its safety against overdose with alcohol. Short-acting benzos like oxazepam and lorazepam are less frequently used for treating alcohol withdrawal (1).

Compared to other drugs, benzos are the safest and most effective method for treating difficult alcohol withdrawal. However, benzodiazepines do come with their own potential for dependence and abuse. Ironically, symptoms of benzodiazepine withdrawal are quite similar to those of alcohol withdrawal. Tapering off dosage is the best way to prevent serious withdrawal symptoms. To avoid such complications, benzodiazepines are only recommended for short-term treatment of alcohol withdrawal.

In short

Benzos can be very useful for helping long terms alcoholics deal with the difficult withdrawal symptoms that can accompany the detox period. Just be mindful so as not to find yourself right back where you started.

Citations:

1. Williams, D., McBride, A. (1998) The drug treatment of alcohol withdrawal symptoms: A systematic review. Alcohol & Alcoholism. 33(2), 103-115

2. Saitz, R., Friedmn, L. S., Mayo-Smith, M.F. (1996) Alcohol withdrawal: a nationwide survey of inpatient treatment practices. 10(9), 479-87

Opioid prescription overdose and abuse – Staying safe while reducing pain

A new article just published in JAMA (see here) reports a strong relationship between high-dose opiate prescribing and accidental overdose deaths. The authors focused on a sample of Veterans and found that those prescribed more than 50mg of morphine per day, or the equivalent of other opiate drugs, we much more likely to die of such overdose than patients being prescribed lower doses. Fortunately, only about 20% of the patient-months (a measure of how many people were prescribed a specific dose for how long) were prescribed these high doses but the rate of overdose for this group was 3 to 20 times higher! Continue reading “Opioid prescription overdose and abuse – Staying safe while reducing pain”

Brittany Murphy dead at 32 – Anemia, pneumonia, and yes, drugs…

Toxicology update

Well, it seems the toxicology reports are in and Brittany’s death was, at least partially, caused by her taking of multiple prescription drugs. Still, it seems that she was trying to medicate a host of conditions brought on by her underlying anemia and pneumonia. It’s sad to think that this death could have likely been prevented had she simply taken better care of herself and gone to seek emergency care rather than loading her body with those pills. Unfortunately, this seems to be another in a string of medically preventable deaths… Sad.

Original post:

Brittany Murphy, the actress from “Clueless,” and “8 Mile” died last night at Cedars-Sinai in Beverly Hills at the age of 32. Brittany has been rumored to be suffering from severe eating disorders, and recent pictures seem to support that notion. Given that she apparently died from cardiac arrest, I’m wondering if drugs (even prescription drugs) played a role in the death as well… I’ll keep updating the story as more becomes available.

My heart goes out to her family and friends. Certainly a loss suffered far too early.

UPDATE: According to the police report, a number of prescription drugs were discovered in Brittany’s bedroom including (read past the list for my take on this):

  1. Topamax –  While TMZ reported this drug to be used as anti-seizure medication, it is also used to reduce weight-gain associated with the use of many other prescription drugs on this list. Lastly, it is considered to be a mood stabilizer.
  2. Methylprednisolone – An anti-inflammatory that may be used to treat bronchial infections
  3. Prozac – A commonly prescribed SSRI anti-depression med.
  4. Klonopin – A benzodiazepine anti-anxiety prescription medication that is also used to help with insomnia. Like most benzos, the probability of overdose is low if used properly, but overdose would lead to cardiac arrest.
  5. Carbamazepine – Another anti-convulsant mood stabilizer often used to treat bipolar disorder. This prescription drug can be very dangerous when combined with other medications due to its actions on GABA and extensive alteration of Sodium channel activity. It is also a bipolar med.
  6. Ativan – Once again a benzodiazepine that is often used to treat anxiety and insomnia.
  7. Vicoprofen – A pain reliever that includes an opioid (it sounds like vicodin for a reason).
  8. Propranolol – Prescription med used to treat hypertension and as an alternative, less habit-forming anti-anxiety drug.
  9. Biaxin – An antibiotic.
  10. Hydrocodone – Same as Vicoprofen, an analgesic (pain reducing) prescription drug.

What do I think killed Brittany?

With 2 benzodiazepine medications, 2 opiates, and antidepressant, and a drug that is made to lower one’s heart pressure, it’s no wonder that Brittany was found not breathing. I’m going to wait until the final toxicology report to draw a definite conclusion, but from this list, it seems highly likely that a dangerous combination of these prescription drugs was taken, which resulted in Brittany’s heart stopping. Even when taken at their prescribed strengths, these medication, when combined, can form a lethal cocktail.

You should ALWAYS check with your doctor regarding interactions between different prescriptions you’re taking, especially when those medications haven’t all been prescribed by the same physician!

Alcohol, benzos, and opiates – Withdrawal that might kill you

Along with teaching and telling stories, part of my goal here at All About Addiction is to get important information out to those who can benefit from it.

Most drug users who quit drug use “cold turkey” have to go through withdrawal of some sort. Withdrawal is never comfortable, but sometimes it can actually be dangerous. The list below outlines some drugs that should NEVER be quit suddenly without medical supervision. This is the reason why some rehab treatment is preceded by a medical detox period lasting anywhere from 2 days to a week or more.

Which withdrawals can actually kill?

  1. Alcohol – Yes, after long term use, withdrawal from alcohol can kill. Alcohol withdrawal syndrome can take on mild, moderate, or severe forms. If while withdrawing from alcohol a person develops a fever, extreme nausea, diarrhea, or DT (delirium tremens), they need to be rushed to see a doctor as soon as possible. In fact, alcohol withdrawal after heavy, chronic use is best managed under the care of a doctor or a professional medical detox unit. By using medications that relieve withdrawal symptoms, these professionals can essentially eliminate any of these risks.
  2. Benzodiazepines – Benzos were introduced as a replacement to barbiturates that were causing common overdose cases, many of which resulted in death. Nevertheless, withdrawal from extended use of benzodiaepines can kill. Whether Xanax (alprazolam), Ativan (lorazepam), Valium (diazepam) or other variations, long term use of Benzodiazepines requires medical supervision to be completed successfully with minimal side-effects and risk to the patient. Normally, the withdrawal process is managed by slowly reducing the dose and transferring the patient from a slow acting, to a long acting, form of the drug. Still, full resolution of benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome can take up to 6 months (or even longer).
  3. Opiates – Many people are surprised to learn that in most cases, withdrawal from many opiates is not deadly. Still there are some very important exceptions. Methadone, a long-acting opiate often prescribed as a replacement for heroin can cause death during withdrawal if it’s consumed in high enough doses for a long enough period. The debate of whether the state should be prescribing something like this should be saved for a later date. It is one of the better ways of getting people off of heroin, though obviously, all it does is replace dependence on one substance with another, more manageable one. Also, some of the recently popular methods of rapid-detox from heroin addiction can themselves cause death, and many other negative side-effects. Overall, I would recommend checking in with a physician and conducting opiate withdrawal in a controlled setting. Withdrawal under Suboxone or Subutex can be far less horrific.

Much of the danger in withdrawal from all of these drugs has to do with the body’s response to the extreme changes in the chemical processes going on in the brain and the rest of the body. Alcohol, Benzos, and Opiates interference with the GABA system, the body’s most common downregulator.

Withdrawal from these drugs is like trying to turn the heat up in a cold house with a broken thermostat and an out of control heater – It won’t always lead to disaster, but it’s a bad idea.

The withdrawal danger summary

That’s pretty much it. “Cold Turkey” withdrawal from cocaine, marijuana, crystal meth, ecstasy, GHB (never mix GHB with alcohol though!!!), and many other recreationally used drugs will not lead to death in the vast majority of cases. While it may make you uncomfortable, and you may feel moody, constipated, dehydrated, hungry or nauseous, and a whole slew of other symptoms, the chances of someone actually dying from withdrawal are very small.

If you have any more specific questions regarding your case though, don’t shy from asking me!