The benzodiazepine dilemma

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As clinicians, we are faced with a conflict when deciding whether or not to prescribe a benzodiazepine. If we prescribe one of these agents, we might be putting our patients at risk for dependence and abuse. However, if we do not prescribe them, we risk providing inadequate treatment, especially for patients with panic disorder.

Benzodiazepine dependence and abuse can take many forms. Dependence can be psychological as well as physiologic. While many patients will adhere to their prescribing regimen, some may sell their benzodiazepines, falsely claim that they have “panic attacks,” or take a fatal overdose of an opioid and benzodiazepine combination.

Here I discuss the pros and cons of restricting benzodiazepines use to low doses and/or combination therapy with antidepressants.


Weighing the benefits of restricted prescribing

Some double-blind studies referenced in the American Psychiatric Association (APA) 2010 Practice Guideline for the Treatment of Patients with Panic Disorder1 suggest that benzodiazepine duration of treatment and dosages should be severely restricted. These studies found that:

  • Although the combination of a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) and a benzodiazepine initially decreased the number of panic attacks more quickly than SSRI monotherapy, the 2 treatments are equally effective after 4 or 5 weeks.2,3
  • For the treatment of panic disorder, a low dosage of a benzodiazepine (clonazepam 1 mg/d or alprazolam 2 mg/d) was as effective as a higher dosage (clonazepam 2 mg/d or alprazolam 6 mg/d).4,5

However, these studies could be misleading. They all excluded patients with a comorbid condition, such as bipolar disorder or depression, that was more severe than their panic disorder. Severe comorbidity is associated with more severe panic symptoms,6,7 which might require an SSRI/benzodiazepine combination or a higher benzodiazepine dosage.

The APA Practice Guideline suggests the following possible options:

  • benzodiazepine augmentation if there is a partial response to an SSRI
  • substitution with a different SSRI or a serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI) if there is no response to an SSRI
  • benzodiazepine augmentation or substitution if there is still no therapeutic response.

Continue to: The APA Practice Guideline also states...

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