Background: Primary care physicians prescribe benzodiazepines for the treatment of anxiety. Although most patients use the benzodiazepines appropriately, some patients experience benzodiazepine abuse, addiction, or physical dependence, each one of which is a distinct syndrome. Benzodiazepine dependence, which relates to the development of tolerance and an abstinence syndrome, can be produced by three disparate benzodiazepine use patterns. These distinct benzodiazepine use patterns can in turn create distinct withdrawal syndromes. High-dose benzodiazepine use between 1 and 6 months can produce an acute sedative-hypnotic withdrawal syndrome. In contrast, low-dose therapeutic range benzodiazepine use longer than 6 months can produce a prolonged, subacute low-dose benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome. Daily, high-dose benzodiazepine use for more than 6 months can cause a combination of an acute high-dose benzodiazepine withdrawal and a prolonged, subacute low-dose withdrawal syndrome. In addition, patients may experience syndrome reemergence.
Methods: A literature search was conducted using the medical subject headings benzodiazepines, substance abuse, substance dependence, substance withdrawal syndrome, and benzodiazepines adverse effects. The years 1970 to the present were reviewed.
Results and conclusions: Medical management for acute benzodiazepine withdrawal includes the graded reduction of the current benzodiazepine dosage, substitution of a long-acting benzodiazepine, and phenobarbital substitution. However, the medical management of benzodiazepine dependence does not constitute treatment of benzodiazepine addiction. Primary care physicians can accept complete, moderate, or limited medical responsibility regarding patients with substance use disorders. However, all physicians should provide diagnostic and referral services.