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Keywords:

  • adverse effects;
  • benzodiazepines;
  • reduction of harm

The benzodiazepines (BZDs) are anxiolytics, hypnotics, anticonvulsants, muscle-relaxants and induce anaesthesia. Adverse effects comprise sedation subjectively and cognitive and psychomotor impairment objectively. Complex skills such as driving can be compromised. Paradoxical excitement can have forensic implications. Long term use beyond the licensed durations is common but both efficacy and adverse effects associated with this have been poorly documented. Withdrawal and dependence have excited particular concern, and even polemic. Perhaps a third of long term (beyond 6 months) users experience symptoms and signs on attempting to withdraw – anxiety, insomnia, muscle spasms and tension and perceptual hypersensitivity. Uncommonly, fits or a psychosis may supervene. The patterns following withdrawal vary widely. The usual method of withdrawal is slow tapering but it may not obviate the problems completely. BZDs are also drugs of abuse either on their own or in conjunction with opioids and stimulants. Claims have been made that the use of BZDs is associated with increased mortality. This is a concern in view of the widespread usage of these drugs, particularly in the elderly. All of these factors impinge on the risk : benefit ratio and the severity of the indications. Harm reduction should focus on choice of alternative treatments both psychological and pharmacological. Guidelines emphasise that BZDs are not drugs of first choice and should only be used short term. Schedules are available to educate about methods of withdrawal in current users, emphasising the slow rate of taper. General principles of harm minimization in the addiction field are appropriate to BZD abuse.