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Issues in the Clinical Use of Benzodiazepines: Potency, Withdrawal, and Rebound

Guy Chouinard, MD, MSc

Published: March 1, 2004

Article Abstract

Low and medium potency benzodiazepines were initially introduced for the treatment of insomnia andanxiety. Their therapeutic actions as anxiolytics, sedative hypnotics, anticonvulsants, and muscle relaxants(with their low toxicity) have led to their use as first-line treatments, and they have become one of the mostprescribed classes of drugs. Novel therapeutic uses of benzodiazepines were discovered with the introductionof the high-potency benzodiazepines (e.g., alprazolam, clonazepam, and lorazepam). They were foundto be effective in treating panic disorder and panic attacks with or without agoraphobia, as add-on therapy toselective serotonin reuptake inhibitors in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder and panic disorders,and as adjunctive therapy in treating patients with acute mania or acute agitation. High-potency benzodiazepineshave replaced low and medium potency benzodiazepines in all benzodiazepine clinical indicationsdue to their greater therapeutic effects and rapid onset of action. Differences in distribution, eliminationhalf-life, and rate of absorption are important considerations when choosing a high-potency benzodiazepine.Typically, a benzodiazepine with long distribution and elimination half-lives is preferred. A maximum doseof 2 mg/day of any of the high-potency benzodiazepines when given for more than 1 week is recommended.Although as a class benzodiazepines act rapidly and are well tolerated, their use presents clinical issues suchas dependence, rebound anxiety, memory impairment, and discontinuation syndrome.

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