Valium (diazepam) is a drug developed in the 1960s that is used to treat anxiety and panic disorders, insomnia, muscle spasms, seizures, restless leg syndrome, and alcohol and benzodiazepine withdrawal syndromes. It’s commonly used by hospitals and other medical institutions as a sedative to calm patients before or after a major medical procedure like an endoscopy or surgery.
As a benzodiazepine, Valium is most known for its quick calming effect and ability to facilitate sleep. Because of its effectiveness, it soon became the bestselling medication in the US between 1968 and 1982. However, it is also habit-forming for these reasons. The high rate of abuse, dependence, and addiction with this drug led government health departments to issue warnings and restrict its use as a prescription medication. Despite this, it was still the fourth most often prescribed benzodiazepine in the US in 2011, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Dependence and addiction to Valium can occur even from taking the drug as prescribed for an extended period of time, or from intravenous administration for over 24 hours. However, addiction most often occurs when the drug is abused. Abuse is defined as any use that is outside of a doctor’s recommendation, and this includes taking more than prescribed, taking it without a prescription, taking it for longer than recommended, or mixing it with other intoxicants, such as alcohol and other benzodiazepines.
Effects on the Mind and Body
Valium works by slowing brain activity and generally depressing the central nervous system. This can create a euphoric high, especially if taken outside of doctor-recommended use or mixed with other intoxicants, as is common in recreational usage. This overarching effect results in a number of side effects, including memory and motor function impairment, dizziness, and depression. If abused or taken for too long, cognitive effects can last for months.
In rare cases, Valium can have the opposite of the usual effect, creating agitation and even rage in the user. It has also been known to create or intensify suicidal urges in some patients.
Allergic reactions and overdose are both possible with Valium and can be dangerous. Emergency medical treatment should be sought immediately if a person who has taken Valium experiences fever, severe rash, severe tremors, jaundice, irregular heartbeat, or seizures.
Long-term use of benzodiazepines has been linked to long-term or permanent changes in the brain. These drugs are designed to target a specific neurotransmitter in the brain and often affect other areas of the brain as well. After long-term exposure, these areas may begin to wear down or become unresponsive without the drug. Valium in particular has been associated with the following long-term cognitive and psychological side effects:
- Memory loss
- Mood swings
- Increased aggression
- Coordination loss
- Paranoia and delusion
One study on benzodiazepines found that long-term use of these drugs could significantly increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease later in life. Researchers found that taking it for 3-6 months increased this risk by 32% and by 84% if taken for more than six months.
Heavy and/or long-term use can also dangerously depress the areas of the brain that regulate the heart and lungs, resulting in difficulty breathing and a slowed pulse. When combined with other depressants, there is a severe risk of coma or death due to a lack of oxygen getting to the brain.
The depressing effects of Valium can also cause damage to the body over time. When bodily processes are unnaturally slowed, it can disrupt functioning and eventually cause issues like constipation, indigestion, abdominal pain, and difficult or painful urination. The gastrointestinal system is especially vulnerable, as it cannot effectively get rid of waste. Chronic constipation can eventually damage the intestines and cause more serious issues.
Drug abuse also puts unnatural stress on the liver and kidneys. These organs are designed to filter out toxins and chemicals that would otherwise wreck havoc on the body, but when overworked, they eventually accumulate damage that can cause them to malfunction or even shut down entirely. Muscle pain and tremors are also commonly associated with long-term Valium abuse.
It’s important to note that Valium is commonly used in combination with other substances in order to increase the feeling of euphoria or even to manage unpleasant side effects of other drugs such as cocaine. This can cause a wide range of other short-term and long-term effects, and compound the risk of overdose and addiction.
Signs of Addiction
Valium addiction can quickly become dangerous. The fact that it’s absorbed so quickly by the body means that a tolerance will inevitably develop, usually not long after the first dose. Even when using Valium as prescribed, an individual will soon need a higher dose in order to achieve the same effect. Once the maximum allowable dose is prescribed, if an alternative medication or treatment is not found, people on the drug will often take more than the recommended amount just to function and to avoid extremely unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.
A 2012 report stated that admission to addiction treatment centers for benzodiazepine use increased by an incredible 569.7% from the year 2000 to 2010. In the meantime, admissions for all other substance types decreased by 9.6%.
Some people will never develop an addiction to Valium, but for others, especially those who have struggled with substance abuse and addiction in the past, physical and psychological dependence is a real risk.
On top of these specific symptoms, any unexplained changes in ability to function at work, with family obligations, or socially can be signs of addiction. Missing a lot of work or school, sudden reduction in quality of work, changes in social circles, and avoidance of family members are all common signs of addiction, though they can also be signs of other mental illnesses such as depression. However, when combined with symptoms listen above or the prescribed or recreational use of Valium, this can often point to substance addiction.
As soon as Valium addiction is suspected, treatment should be sought. The longer one waits to be treated, the worse the dependence is likely to become, making recovery harder. It’s also very important to seek professional advice and assistance before stopping Valium use entirely, especially if physical addiction has developed. Benzodiazepine withdrawal can be dangerous in rare cases, and it is often extremely unpleasant and difficult to endure. However, medical detox and rehabilitation programs are widely available and designed to get individuals through the process safely and comfortably.
The first step on the road to recovery from Valium and many other substances is often detox – the process of allowing the drug to be flushed from the body. With Valium, this process can take around 20 hours and involves a number of intense symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms can persist for days after the drug has left the body. These include:
- Excessive sweating
- Persistent insomnia
- Stomach cramps
- Visual impairment
- Increase in blood pressure
The reality of these symptoms often acts as a deterrent for those considering quitting or seeking treatment for addiction. About 20.2 million people age 12 or older were in need of treatment for substance abuse or addiction in 2013 but did not receive it. While detox can be uncomfortable, addiction treatment specialists are trained to make the process as bearable as possible. Clients are closely monitored for any dangerous symptoms and given medication to manage the unpleasant ones. SSRI antidepressants may be used to reduce a temporary rebound in anxiety common in Valium withdrawal. Simple painkillers and other drugs can easily manage cramps, insomnia, sweating, and blood pressure.
In some cases, doctors may recommend that clients be weaned off Valium by having them gradually take lesser doses over a period of several weeks. This reduces unpleasant withdrawal symptoms; however, it also comes with an increased risk of relapse, especially if done as part of an outpatient treatment plan. This is more likely to be recommended for clients whose addiction does not appear to be as severe or who have a well-established support network.
Once detox has been completed, it’s highly recommended that the client continue with either an inpatient or outpatient program. Addiction doesn’t end once the substance has left the body. The body will still need time to adjust to the absence of the drug. Cravings can continue for weeks or months, and they can reemerge under stressful situations or if the individual regains access to the substance.
Inpatient programs for addiction typically consist of treatment that lasts for several weeks. In rehab, the client must stay in a hospital ward or other facility where no substances of abuse are allowed. The client is taught the necessary skills to resist temptation when presented with it and how to deal with other common stressors that can make it difficult to stay off the drug.
These programs are often more expensive than outpatient programs and require a commitment of several weeks, making them difficult to access for those without much money or who cannot take the time off work. Those with children or other family commitments may also find it impossible to be away from home for that long. There are low-cost programs available, but they often have waiting lists. Most treatment facilities offer some form of financing to make the cost of care manageable for those in need. Also, many facilities take insurance so that should be explored as the first option of payment.
Outpatient programs allow clients to spend most of their time at home, having them come in on a regular basis for checkups, counseling appointments, and/or support group meetings. This flexibility can make things easier on clients who have unavoidable commitments or those struggling with finances, but the risk of relapse is higher. It can also be a burden on those who live in rural areas and have to drive long distances to get to each appointment, consuming both time and transportation costs.
Once this treatment period is completed, clients can significantly reduce the risk of relapse if they attend a support group or engage in a 12-Step program. About 40-60 percent of people with addiction disorders relapse at least once, but this does not mean that treatment has failed. When any kind of treatment stops, whether it’s addiction counseling, support groups, or group therapy, the likelihood of relapse increases. Because addiction disorders are lifelong conditions, the risk of relapse is always present, and treatment may need to last in some capacity for an individual’s entire life. Fortunately, ongoing support groups for addiction recovery are common and readily available.