Research suggests benzodiazepine use is high while use disorder rates are low

Benzodiazepines, such as sedatives and sleeping aids, are often used for the short-term treatment of anxiety and insomnia. While benzodiazepine use is highly prevalent among U.S. adults, public health experts have not known what proportion of benzodiazepine users misuse them or meet criteria for benzodiazepine use disorders. A recent analysis suggests that benzodiazepine use disorders are relatively rare among the adults who use benzodiazepine medications, even if they are misusing them.

Of 5.2 Million adults who misused benzodiazepines in the past year, the main reason cited for the most recent use.
Courtesy of the authors
Of 5.2 Million adults who misused benzodiazepines in the past year, the main reason cited for the most recent use.

Investigators looked at data from 102,000 adults who participated in the 2015–2016 National Surveys on Drug Use and Health, as well as other patient tracking information. Using data analytics, researchers concluded that 12.5% of adults in the U.S. used benzodiazepines, which extrapolates to about 30.5 million persons. However, only 2.1% of U.S. adults misused them (at least once), and only 0.2% met the criteria for benzodiazepine use disorders. Among benzodiazepine users, 17.1% misused them, and fewer than 2% had benzodiazepine use disorders.

Benzodiazepine use was associated with emergency room visits, mental disorders, suicidal ideation, and substance use. The scientists suggested that adults who use benzodiazepines should be assessed at baseline and on an ongoing basis for a broad range of psychiatric and general medical conditions. These findings underscore the importance of using benzodiazepines only as directed by a physician, and that these prescription drugs should not be not shared with others.

It is important to note that the common use of these medications may help explain the growing rate of overdoses associated with combined benzodiazepine and opioid use. The researchers also looked at why people misuse these medications. Among past-year benzodiazepine misusers, 46.3% reported that the motivation for their most recent misuse was to relax or relieve tension, followed by helping with sleep (22.4%). About 5.7% reported “experimentation” as their main motivation for misuse, and 11.8% reported using them to “get high” or because of being “hooked.”

The data also showed that most misusers obtained benzodiazepines from friends or relatives, with only about 20% receiving them from their doctor. The analysis was done by scientists at NIDA and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The authors conducted a similar analysis on the use of prescription stimulants in the U.S. earlier this year here.