When he visited his new doctor, Drew was still taking Ativan, which had been prescribed to him to prevent the tremors and seizures that made his withdrawal from alcohol unbearable. Because Drew hadn’t touched a drink in months, his new doctor wanted to wean him off the medication by lowering his dosage and frequency of use. But, Drew insisted on continuing with Ativan, at least for another month until he had solidified his position at a new job. And his new doctor adhered to his request.
The next time that the doctor heard about his new patient came a couple of weeks later when a colleague read him Drew’s obituary. Although the cause of death was not listed, the doctor figured Drew, who was only in his ‘30s, might have run into danger if he had returned to drinking and mixed alcohol with his Ativan prescription.
Ativan is both addictive and dangerous. Like Valium and Xanax, Ativan is a benzodiazepine, a class of medicines known as sedative-hypnotics. Benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed to treat anxiety and insomnia, which just happen to be symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. The problem with Ativan and other benzos are that when the drug is abruptly stopped, the same withdrawal symptoms that Drew had hoped to avoid when he quit drinking is likely to emerge again.
Because of their addictive nature, benzodiazepines prescriptions are often misused, intentionally or accidentally, which can lead to slower breathing, an altered mental state, overdose, and even death. But, even when taken regularly, Ativan can have the unintended effect of impairing an individual’s ability to sleep without them. When used for anxiety, their disruption or withdrawal can lead to a wicked return of the symptoms it is intended to treat.
Despite these warnings, too many seniors continue to use benzos to help with sleep and anxiety disorders. Plus, more than half of the older Americans who take these medications for prolonged periods are putting themselves at risk for overdose and dire health issues.
Because benzos cause dizziness, the most problematic of those threats to seniors are falls and fractures, which already pose a danger to older people. Given the propensity to cause drowsiness and fatigue, Ativan use is also implicated in many automobile accidents, especially those involving older drivers.
For reasons like these, benzodiazepines are connected to more emergency room visits than even prescriptions opioids, a health crisis of its own that has drawn much of the nation’s attention. The problem is many people don’t understand that benzodiazepines share many of the same characteristics as opioids. That perception needs to change.
Ativan is the brand name for lorazepam which is an anti-anxiety medication also prescribed to treat other ailments ranging from insomnia to epilepsy. The medication belongs to the class of drugs known as benzodiazepines or “benzos.” Benzodiazepines are sedatives used primarily to treat anxiety, phobias, panic attacks, seizures, and insomnia. Other popular benzodiazepines include Valium, Ativan, and Klonopin. The most considerable difference between Ativan and other benzodiazepines is how long the drugs remain in the body. Ativan, in most cases, produces short-acting effects.
Benzodiazepines like Ativan act on the brain and central nervous system to calm the body. Anti-anxiety drugs like Ativan can also cause agitation. The other side effects of Ativan include:
While benzodiazepines are primarily used for sleep and anxiety disorders, they are increasingly prescribed for pain relief as well. This is of concern to seniors who can easily get hooked and, within a few days or weeks, become increasingly agitated if they cease taking the medication. To deal with the effects, these same older people are often given higher doses, which only makes them more irritable, aggressive, confused and susceptible to falls.
Anyone who stops taking Ativan and, as a result, fails to meet tolerance levels that the body has grown accustomed to will experience withdrawal. Ativan works by triggering a neurotransmitter in the brain called gamma-aminobutyric acid, which slows down messages within the central nervous system to create the drowsiness leading up to sleep.
As Ativan use continues, tolerance increases, which means the nervous system begins to get accustomed to the enhanced GABA activity. When this level of tolerance is no longer maintained, the body wants to react as if GABA is still present. That means Ativan withdrawal may occur when usage is stopped abruptly or even gradually in smaller, less frequent doses. As the body struggles to adapt to less and less Ativan, a person who has become dependent on the drug will experience withdrawal. This typically includes intense cravings to compromise the unpleasant side effects.
Individuals who have taken Ativan for more than one week and in higher doses are more prone to withdrawal symptoms. People with a history of alcoholism or drug addiction are especially vulnerable. When Ativan use is significantly reduced or stopped abruptly, withdrawal symptoms are likely to include:
The timeline and stages of Ativan withdrawal can vary depending on the individual’s tolerance level, genetics, frequency of use and dosage. However, most withdrawals will feature stages that can be important to recognize and prevent health complications. A general timeline to get a better understanding of what to expect might include:
The first three days: Expect to experience the same side effects that Ativan was intended to treat including anxiety and irritability and an overwhelming desire to return to use.
After 72 hours: More acute withdrawal symptoms will elevate to body aches and pains, difficulty sleeping, and mood swings.
73 hours to the second week of withdrawal: The biggest threat to individuals is depression and the intense craving to use again.
One month and longer: Some mental side effects including depression and cravings will persist. The physical symptoms of withdrawal have been eliminated by this time, and one is especially vulnerable to return to relapse.
No one who has taken Ativan for more than a week should stop abruptly. “Cold turkey” withdrawal can produce dangerous symptoms, such as nausea, chills, anxiety and even delirium. Like any other benzodiazepines, the best method for treating Ativan withdrawal is to taper gradually off use over time. Tapering works best with the help of a doctor or substance abuse treatment provider.
In this way, a medical professional can also prescribe a longer-acting benzodiazepine, such as phenobarbital or antidepressants, anticonvulsants and antihypertensive medications to alleviate the distressful symptoms associated with withdrawal. It is important to remember that these medications will not altogether eliminate the risk of dangerous withdrawal symptoms, such as delirium and seizures.
Ready to get Help?
Talk to a treatment expert
Persuading an individual to stop abusing Ativan is only the first step. Weaning this individual off Ativan can be extremely difficult. For this reason, individuals who wish to stop taking Ativan and other benzodiazepines should work with a substance abuse treatment provider to taper off these addictive drugs and ease the pain of withdrawal.
This type of supervision is typically found at a hospital or residential treatment facility, where certified medical professionals can manage the acute physical symptoms associated with benzodiazepine detoxification.
Here, in a safe and peaceful environment, longer-acting benzodiazepines can be prescribed in managed doses to alleviate the common discomforts associated with the Ativan withdrawal process until all drugs can be eliminated from the body. Plus, medical staff can monitor progress and prevent any complications. Detox is a highly recommended first step on a path toward recovery.
Detox is only one part of treating Ativan or benzodiazepine addiction. Following successful detox from Ativan, the best shot at sustained sobriety and a life without benzodiazepines will require determination, commitment and an extended stay at a residential treatment center. At this stage, you will be matched with a treatment plan that meets your unique needs and goals. Your therapist will help you address the mental and emotional issues that may have led to your addiction in the first place.
After residential, you will want to move onto outpatient therapy as you transition back into everyday life in sobriety. You will be able to participate in the same treatments, but you will be able to live at home or in a sober living facility rather than staying at the facility as in residential. Recovery is a lifelong journey and the longer you stay in treatment, the better your chances at long-term sobriety.
Under the right conditions, Ativan can be used to treat sleep and anxiety disorders as well as alcohol withdrawal. But, because the medication contains addictive properties, its abuse can be downright terrifying. Unfortunately, you are just realizing this firsthand.
The good news is that if you want it, help is available. If you or a loved one is struggling with an addiction to Ativan and recognize the need for specialized care to eliminate benzodiazepines from your life, you are in the right place. Beginning with detox and on through our post-treatment alumni program, the highly trained medical professionals and substance abuse counselors at Arete Recovery are ready to help you eliminate your dependency to Ativan and any other benzodiazepine that has defined your addiction. Call 888-343-7366 now to speak with one of our addiction specialists for more information.
U.S. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/meds/a682053.html
Partnership for Drug Free Kids. Retrieved from https://drugfree.org/drug/prescription-sedatives-tranquilizers/
Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements/lorazepam-oral-route/description/drg-20072296
National Institute of Drug Abuse. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/opioids/benzodiazepines-opioids
U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4553644/