How Does Diazepam Affect the Body, and What Are the Risks of Use?

What Are Benzodiazepines, and Are They Addictive? » How Does Diazepam Affect the Body, and What Are the Risks of Use?

Most people know diazepam by its brand name, Valium.

This benzodiazepine was synthesized in 1963 by Croatian chemist Leo Sternbach to treat anxiety, seizures, and insomnia. The drug quickly grew in popularity around the world. It was the best-selling drug in the United States for over a decade, and it remains on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines to this day.

Diazepam is used to treat a variety of ailments, from insomnia and anxiety to seizures, muscle spasms, and restless leg syndrome. The drug’s effects – principal among them, a feeling of relaxation and sedation – is part of what makes it so popular among physicians and recreational drug users. However, there is a dark side to diazepam; the drug has proven to be highly addictive.

Diazepam Use and Abuse

Diazepam has enjoyed widespread use in the United States since the drug’s introduction, with current statistics showing no signs of slowing down. The New York Times reports that physicians in America wrote 14.7 million diazepam prescriptions in 2011 alone. While this drug can be beneficial for some people, it should be taken with caution, as it can be quite habit-forming after prolonged use.

In fact, diazepam is also a popular prescription drug for recreational users. Some people take Valium or other diazepam-based drugs to help them achieve a sedative state. Others use the drug to counteract the effects of stimulants like cocaine or to prevent a “bad trip” when using heroin or LSD. Diazepam misuse, like the misuse of other drugs, is both dangerous and illegal.

Potential Side Effects

Like most benzodiazepines, diazepam targets the central nervous system by increasing gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) levels in the brain. This neurotransmitter inhibits neuron activity in the brain, ebbing anxiety and creating a general feeling of wellness. However, diazepam use does come with some negative side effects.

These include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Constipation
  • Memory problems
  • Muscle weakness
  •  Slurred speech
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Low sex drive

While some of these side effects will fade as the drug leaves the body, studies indicate that diazepam can have a lasting impact on the person using it.

Many studies have concluded that chronic benzodiazepine use can cause significant brain damage, and research from Harvard University suggests that using benzodiazepines like diazepam in later years can increase a person’s risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Signs and Symptoms of AddictionDetox and Withdrawal

It is quite common for people who begin using diazepam for medical reasons to find themselves struggling with an addiction. According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, 40 percent of people who use diazepam for longer than six weeks will end up addicted to the drug.

This is because of the body’s ability to develop a tolerance for diazepam; as a person continues using the drug, their body becomes accustomed to receiving it. As a result, they are less prone to the drug’s effects and must take a higher dose to achieve the same feeling. Ultimately, this behavior will lead to physical dependence on diazepam if left unchecked.

How do you know if someone you care about is developing an addiction to diazepam? Watch for some of the telltale signs of drug abuse, like increasing their dosage or experiencing cravings for the drug. You can also watch for frequent signs of intoxication. Some symptoms of diazepam abuse, which could point to an addiction, are:

  • Memory problems
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Putting their need for the drug above other priorities
  • Isolating from friends and family

Should you or someone you care about develop a diazepam addiction, it is important that you get the help you need to overcome it as soon as possible. However, fighting a diazepam addiction is not as easy as simply stopping use. The Australian Prescriber suggests that individuals gradually taper off benzodiazepines such as diazepam; stopping use too abruptly, they warn, could cause seizures. Other withdrawal side effects include:

  • Cramps
  • Tremors
  • Muscle pain
  • Vomiting
  • Anxiety
  • Hallucinations

Diazepam withdrawal can set in within a few hours after someone’s last dose and typically lasts up to four weeks.

Treating Diazepam Addiction

The National Institute of Drug Abuse suggests that people suffering from addiction take several steps during their recovery. These include detoxification (the withdrawal period discussed above), counseling and psychiatric evaluations, and the development of a long-term treatment plan to ensure the success of their sobriety. However, the kind of counseling a person receives during treatment will vary based on the person’s specific needs.

Before deciding on a treatment plan, it is important to consider the circumstances surrounding a person’s addiction. How long have they been using diazepam? Were they using the drug for medical or recreational purposes? Do they have any co-occurring mental health issues to deal with as well? Are they more comfortable talking about their addiction in a group or a one-on-one setting? These details will impact a person’s recovery journey, so they are a critical part of the treatment plan discussion.

There is no doubt that fighting an addiction is a difficult journey; however, maintaining sobriety is a far more rewarding path than continuing the cycle of abuse. If you, or someone you care about, are struggling with diazepam abuse, reach out for help today.

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Brooke Abner,

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