How to Properly taper off Benzodiazepines


It soon became clear that each person’s experience of withdrawal is unique. Although there are many features in common, every individual has his/her own personal pattern of withdrawal symptoms.

These differ in type, quality, severity, time-course, duration, and many other features. Such variety is not surprising since the course of withdrawal depends on many factors: the dose, type, potency, duration of action and length of use of a particular benzodiazepine, the reason it was prescribed, the personality and individual vulnerability of the patient, his or her lifestyle, personal stresses and past experiences, the rate of withdrawal, and the degree of support available during and after withdrawal, to name but a few. For this reason the advice about withdrawal which follows is only a general guide; each individual must seek out the details of his own pathway. But the guide is gleaned from the successful withdrawal experiences of a large number of men and women aged 18-80 with different home backgrounds, occupations, drug histories and rates of withdrawal.

The success rate has been high (over 90%), and those who have withdrawn, even after taking benzodiazepines for over 20 years, have felt better both physically and mentally.

As described in Chapter I, long-term use of benzodiazepines can give rise to many unwanted effects, including poor memory and cognition, emotional blunting, depression, increasing anxiety, physical symptoms and dependence. All benzodiazepines can produce these effects whether taken as sleeping pills or anti-anxiety drugs. The social and economic consequences of chronic benzodiazepine use are summarised in Table 3 (Chapter I).

Furthermore, the evidence suggests that benzodiazepines are no longer effective after a few weeks or months of regular use. They lose much of their efficacy because of the development of tolerance. When tolerance develops, “withdrawal” symptoms can appear even though the user continues to take the drug. Thus the symptoms suffered by many long-term users are a mixture of adverse effects of the drugs and “withdrawal” effects due to tolerance. The Committee on Safety of Medicines and the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the UK concluded in various statements (1988 and 1992) that benzodiazepines are unsuitable for long-term use and that they should in general be prescribed for periods of 2-4 weeks only.

Thus there are good reasons for long-term users to stop their benzodiazepines if they feel unhappy about the medication. Many people are frightened of withdrawal, but reports of having to “go through hell” can be greatly exaggerated. With a sufficiently gradual and individualised tapering schedule, as outlined below, withdrawal can be quite tolerable, even easy, especially when the user understands the cause and nature of any symptoms that do arise and is therefore not afraid. Many “withdrawal symptoms” are simply due to fear of withdrawal (or even fear of that fear). People who have had bad experiences have usually been withdrawn too quickly (often by doctors!) and without any explanation of the symptoms. At the other extreme, some people can stop their benzodiazepines with no symptoms at all: according to some authorities, this figure may be as high as 50% even after a year of chronic usage. Even if this figure is correct (which is arguable) it is unwise to stop benzodiazepines suddenly.

The advantages of discontinuing benzodiazepines do not necessarily mean that every long-term user should withdraw. Nobody should be forced or persuaded to withdraw against his or her will. In fact, people who are unwillingly pushed into withdrawal often do badly. On the other hand, the chances of success are very high for those sufficiently motivated. As mentioned before, almost anyone who really wants to come off can come off benzodiazepines. The option is up to you.

Your doctor may have views on whether it is appropriate for you to stop your benzodiazepines. In a small number of cases withdrawal may be inadvisable. Some doctors, particularly in the US, believe that long-term benzodiazepines are indicated for some anxiety, panic and phobic disorders and some psychiatric conditions. However, medical opinions differ and, even if complete withdrawal is not advised, it may be beneficial to reduce the dosage or to take intermittent courses with benzodiazepine-free intervals.

Your doctor’s agreement and co-operation is necessary since he/she will be prescribing the medication. Many doctors are uncertain how to manage benzodiazepine withdrawal and hesitate to undertake it. But you can reassure your doctor that you intend to be in charge of your own program and will proceed at whatever pace you find comfortable, although you may value his advice from time to time. It is important for you to be in control of your own schedule. Do not let your doctor impose a deadline. Leave yourself free to “proceed as the way openeth”, as the Quakers say.

It is a good idea to make out a dosage reduction schedule for the initial stages (see below) and to give your doctor a copy. You may need to mention the importance of flexibility, so that the rate of dosage tapering can be amended at any time. There may even be circumstances when you need to stop for a while at a certain stage. A continuation schedule can follow later depending upon how you get on, and the doctor can continue prescribing in accordance with the new schedule. (All

 Dosage tapering. There is absolutely no doubt that anyone withdrawing from long-term benzodiazepines must reduce the dosage slowly. Abrupt or over-rapid withdrawal, especially from high dosage, can give rise to severe symptoms (convulsions, psychotic reactions, acute anxiety states) and may increase the risk of protracted withdrawal symptoms (see Chapter III). Slow withdrawal means tapering dosage gradually, usually over a period of some months. The aim is to obtain a smooth, steady and slow decline in blood and tissue concentrations of benzodiazepines so that the natural systems in the brain can recover their normal state. As explained in Chapter I, long-term benzodiazepines take over many of the functions of the body’s natural tranquilliser system, mediated by the neurotransmitter GABA. As a result, GABA receptors in the brain reduce in numbers and GABA function decreases. Sudden withdrawal from benzodiazepines leaves the brain in a state of GABA-underactivity, resulting in hyperexcitability of the nervous system. This hyperexcitability is the root cause of most of the withdrawal symptoms discussed in the next chapter. However, a sufficiently slow, and smooth, departure of benzodiazepines from the body permits the natural systems to regain control of the functions which have been damped down by their presence. There is scientific evidence that reinstatement of brain function takes a long time. Recovery after long-term benzodiazepine use is not unlike the gradual recuperation of the body after a major surgical operation. Healing, of body or mind, is a slow process.

The precise rate of withdrawal is an individual matter. It depends on many factors including the dose and type of benzodiazepine used, duration of use, personality, lifestyle, previous experience, specific vulnerabilities, and the (perhaps genetically determined) speed of your recovery systems. Usually the best judge is you, yourself; you must be in control and must proceed at the pace that is comfortable for you. You may need to resist attempts from outsiders (clinics, doctors) to persuade you into a rapid withdrawal. The classic six weeks withdrawal period adopted by many clinics and doctors is much too fast for many long-term users. Actually, the rate of withdrawal, as long as it is slow enough, is not critical. Whether it takes 6 months, 12 months or 18 months is of little significance if you have taken benzodiazepines for a matter of years.

It is sometimes claimed that very slow withdrawal from benzodiazepines “merely prolongs the agony” and it is better to get it over with as quickly as possible. However, the experience of most patients is that slow withdrawal is greatly preferable, especially when the subject dictates the pace. Indeed, many patients find that there is little or no “agony” involved. Nevertheless there is no magic rate of withdrawal and each person must find the pace that suits him best. People who have been on low doses of benzodiazepine for a relatively short time (less than a year) can usually withdraw fairly rapidly. Those who have been on high doses of potent benzodiazepines such as Xanax and Klonopin are likely to need more time

For people withdrawing from these potent, short-acting drugs it is advisable to switch to a long-acting, slowly metabolised benzodiazepine such as diazepam. Diazepam (Valium) is one of the most slowly eliminated benzodiazepines. It has a half-life of up to 200 hours, which means that the blood level for each dose falls by only half in about 8.3 days. The only other benzodiazepines with similar half-lives are chlordiazepoxide (Librium), flunitrazepam (Rohypnol) and flurazepam (Dalmane), all of which are converted to a diazepam metabolite in the body. The slow elimination of diazepam allows a smooth, gradual fall in blood level, allowing the body to adjust slowly to a decreasing concentration of the benzodiazepines. The switch-over process needs to be carried out gradually, usually in stepwise fashion, substituting one dose at a time. There are several factors to consider. One is the difference in potency between different benzodiazepines. Many people have suffered because they have been switched suddenly to a different, less potent drug in inadequate dosage because the doctor has not adequately considered this factor. Equivalent potencies of benzodiazepines are shown in Table 1 (Chapter I), but these are only approximate and differ between individuals.

A second factor to bear in mind is that the various benzodiazepines, though broadly similar, have slightly different profiles of action. For example, lorazepam (Ativan) seems to have less hypnotic activity than diazepam (probably because it is shorter acting). Thus if someone on, say, 2mg Ativan three times a day is directly switched to 60mg diazepam (the equivalent dose for anxiety) he is liable to become extremely sleepy, but if he is switched suddenly onto a much smaller dose of diazepam, he will probably get withdrawal symptoms. Making the changeover one dose (or part of dose) at a time avoids this difficulty and also helps to find the equivalent dosage for that individual. It is also helpful to make the first substitution in the night-time dose, and the substitution may not always need to be complete. For example, if the evening dose was 2mg Ativan, this could in some cases be changed to 1 mg Ativan plus 8mg diazepam. A full substitution for the dropped 1 mg of Ativan would have been 10mg diazepam. However, the patient may actually sleep well on this combination and he will have already made a dosage reduction – a first step in withdrawal. (Examples of step-wise substitutions are given in the schedules at the end of this chapter.)

A third important practical factor is the available dosage formulations of the various benzodiazepines. In withdrawal you need a long-acting drug which can be reduced in very small steps. Diazepam (Valium) is the only benzodiazepine that is ideal for this purpose since it comes in 2mg tablets, which are scored down the middle and easily halved into 1 mg doses. By contrast, the smallest available tablet of lorazepam (Ativan) is 0.5mg (equivalent to 5mg diazepam) [in the UK the lowest available dosage form for lorazepam is 1mg]; the smallest tablet of alprazolam (Xanax) is 0.25mg (also equivalent to 5mg diazepam). Even by halving these tablets the smallest reduction one could easily make is the equivalent of 2.5mg diazepam. (Some patients become very adept at shaving small portions off their tablets). Because of limited dose formulations, it may be necessary to switch to diazepam even if you are on a fairly long-acting benzodiazepine of relatively low potency (e.g. flurazepam [Dalmane]). Liquid preparations of some benzodiazepines are available and if desired slow reduction from these can be accomplished by decreasing the volume of each dose, using a graduated syringe.

Some doctors in the US switch patients onto clonazepam (Klonopin, [Rivotril in Canada]), believing that it will be easier to withdraw from than say alprazolam (Xanax) or lorazepam (Ativan) because it is more slowly eliminated. However, Klonopin is far from ideal for this purpose. It is an extremely potent drug, is eliminated much faster than diazepam (See Table 1, Chapter I), and the smallest available tablet in the US is 0.5mg (equivalent to 10mg diazepam) and 0.25mg in Canada (equivalent to 5mg Valium). It is difficult with this drug to achieve a smooth, slow fall in blood concentration, and there is some evidence that withdrawal is particularly difficult from high potency benzodiazepines, including Klonopin. Some people, however, appear to have particular difficulty in switching from Klonopin to diazepam. In such cases it is possible to have special capsules made up containing small doses, e.g. an eighth or a sixteenth of a milligram or less, which can be used to make gradual dosage reductions straight from Klonopin. These capsules require a doctor’s prescription and can be made up by hospital pharmacists and some chemists in the UK, and by compounding pharmacists in North America. A similar technique can be used for those on other benzodiazepines who find it hard to substitute diazepam. To locate a compounding pharmacist in the USA or Canada this web site may be useful: www.iacprx.org. Care must be taken to ensure that the compounding pharmacist can guarantee the same formula on each prescription renewal. It should be noted, however, that this approach to benzodiazepine withdrawal can be troublesome and is not recommended for general use.

Schedule 6. Withdrawal from clonazepam (Klonopin) 3mg
daily with substitution of diazepam (Valium).
(1 mg clonazepam is equivalent to 20mg diazepam)

  Morning Midday/Afternoon Evening/Night Daily Diazepam
Equivalent
Starting dosage clonazepam 1mg clonazepam 1mg clonazepam 1mg 60mg
Stage 1
(1-2 weeks)
clonazepam 1mg clonazepam 1mg clonazepam 0.5mg
diazepam 10mg
60mg
Stage 2
(1-2 weeks)
clonazepam 0.5mg
diazepam 10mg
clonazepam 1mg clonazepam 0.5mg
diazepam 10mg
60mg
Stage 3
(1-2 weeks)
clonazepam 0.5mg
diazepam 10mg
clonazepam 0.5mg
diazepam 5mg
clonazepam 0.5mg
diazepam 10mg
55mg
Stage 4
(1-2 weeks)
clonazepam 0.5mg
diazepam 10mg
clonazepam 0.5mg
diazepam 5mg
Stop clonazepam
diazepam 15mg
50mg
Stage 5
(1-2 weeks)
clonazepam 0.25mg
diazepam 10mg
clonazepam 0.5mg
diazepam 5mg
diazepam 15mg 45mg
Stage 6
(1-2 weeks)
clonazepam 0.25mg
diazepam 10mg
clonazepam 0.25mg
diazepam 5mg
diazepam 15mg 40mg
Stage 7
(1-2 weeks)
Stop clonazepam
diazepam 10mg
clonazepam 0.25mg
diazepam 5mg
diazepam 15mg 35mg
Stage 8
(1-2 weeks)
diazepam 10mg Stop clonazepam
diazepam 5mg
diazepam 15mg 30mg
Stage 9
(1-2 weeks)
diazepam 10mg diazepam 2.5mg diazepam 15mg 27.5mg
Stage 10
(1-2 weeks)
diazepam 12mg Stop diazepam diazepam 15mg 27mg
Stage 11
(1-2 weeks)
diazepam 10mg diazepam 15mg 25mg
Stage 12
(1-2 weeks)
diazepam 10mg diazepam 14mg 24mg
Stage 13
(1-2 weeks)
diazepam 10mg diazepam 12mg 22mg
Stage 14
(1-2 weeks)
diazepam 10mg diazepam 10mg 20mg
Continue from Schedule 5, Stage 10

Some information was gathered from Professor Heather Ashton

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Human Performance Psychology

Enhances & Restore Performance, Grow Business & Personal Wealth

Learning to write

Just your average PhD student using the internet to enhance their CV

CJ Mollo

Internet Marketing Tips & Product Reviews!

love and loss

love of a lifetime

Simply Pao.

A Journal of Trauma, Healing, and Motherhood

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