Ativan Addiction: Side Effects of Long-term Use

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Editorial Staff
Editorial Staff
Author, American Addiction Centers
The editorial staff of American Addiction Centers is made up of credentialed clinical reviewers with hands-on experience in or expert knowledge of addiction treatment. Read More

What Are The Dangers of Long-Term Use of Ativan?

Long-term abuse of Ativan can lead to:

  • Sedation
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Memory loss
  • Learning difficulties
  • Mouth sores
  • Abdominal bleeding
  • Kidney problems
  • Headaches
  • Loss of appetite
  • Insomnia
  • Seizures
  • Family difficulties, including child abuse
  • Divorce
  • Financial difficulties
  • Legal challenges, including incarceration
  • Unemployment
  • Withdrawal symptoms

Ativan is the trade name for a prescription drug called lorazepam, a medication that belongs to a family of tranquilizers called benzodiazepines.

Ativan is prescribed for several important reasons, including the treatment of anxiety, sleep disturbances, muscle spasms, alcohol withdrawal, and seizure disorders. But Ativan can be habit-forming if it is taken for nonmedical reasons or if the user takes more than the prescribed dose.

Over the long-term, Ativan abuse can have a negative impact on an individual’s physical, psychological, and emotional health, as well as on the quality of home life and relationships. When Ativan use becomes addiction, professional detox and rehab can help individuals safely withdraw from the drug and regain control over their lives.

recreational use of ativan

Effects on the Brain and Body

Anxiety is one of the most common psychiatric disorders in the United States, and as a result, anti-anxiety drugs have become among the most popular prescription medications in the country.

Like other drugs in the benzodiazepine category, Ativan is a central nervous system depressant that slows down unusual electrical activity in the brain. By calming this excessive activity, Ativan helps to relieve symptoms of anxiety, such as restlessness, tension, irrational fears, and irritability. But within a matter of weeks, the nervous system adjusts to the effects of Ativan, and a tolerance to the drug develops. The user needs higher doses of the drug to achieve the same sensations of relaxation and calm. With continued use, the user can become dependent on lorazepam, requiring the drug in order to function physically or mentally.

Even a patient who takes Ativan according to a doctor’s instructions can become dependent on the medication over time; for this reason, lorazepam and other benzodiazepines are often prescribed for limited periods of time. One of the biggest risks of Ativan abuse is the possibility that Ativan dependency can turn into addiction. The warning signs of Ativan addiction include:

  • Preoccupation with obtaining and using the drug, at the expense of other responsibilities or relationships
  • A need for increasingly large doses of Ativan to get the desired effects
  • Persistent abuse of the drug, in spite of the negative effects on one’s health or wellbeing
  • Physical or psychological signs of withdrawal (restlessness, anxiety, tremors, insomnia, nausea, and other symptoms) when the user attempts to quit or reduce the dose
  • Multiple attempts to stop using Ativan without success

According to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 1.7 million Americans age 12 and older admitted to using tranquilizers like lorazepam for nonmedical reasons that year. Recreational use of Ativan greatly increases the risk of becoming dependent and eventually addicted to the drug. After several months or years of use, the cumulative effects of Ativan misuse can pose serious health problems to individuals and their loved ones.

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Health Risks

Because Ativan is a legal, frequently prescribed medication, many people have the false impression that this drug is “safe”compared to illicit drugs like meth or heroin. However, when Ativan is abused, this medication can be as harmful as any other substance. As a central nervous system depressant, lorazepam slows down the functions of the brain and body. Electrical activity in the brain and nerves slows down after the user takes Ativan, which affects cognitive function, learning, memory, response times, and reflexes.

Although Ativan does not typically cause severe suppression of the respiratory or cardiovascular systems, a fatal overdose can occur when the drug is combined with other central nervous system depressants.

Physical and Mental Health Effects

Long-term abuse can have serious effects on physical and mental health, including the following:

  • Increased drowsiness or sedation
  • Physical and mental fatigue
  • Increased anxiety
  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Memory loss
  • Learning difficulties
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Pale or bluish skin

Withdrawal Signs

withdrawal signs After abusing Ativan for a long time, the user may experience an intensification of the symptoms that used to be relieved by the drug, such as anxiety, seizure activity, or muscle spasms. This rebound effect may also occur during withdrawal, when the user attempts to stop taking Ativan. Additional signs of Ativan withdrawal include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Shakiness
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating

Withdrawing from Ativan without medical supervision can be dangerous, especially for long-term users.

Stopping the drug too abruptly can cause potentially fatal seizure activity. The safest way to withdraw from lorazepam is to enroll in a medical detox program, where clients receive round-the-clock monitoring as they are tapered gradually off the drug.

Statistics from the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) indicate that between 2005 and 2011, nearly 1 million Americans sought emergency treatment for reasons related to benzodiazepine abuse. A large percentage of these visits involved the use of benzodiazepines combined with alcohol, opiate pain relievers, sleeping pills, and other drugs that depress the central nervous system. According to DAWN, the number of hospital admission and fatalities increases among emergency room patients taking benzodiazepines with other depressant drugs. Combining Ativan with alcohol or other sedatives significantly raises the risk of respiratory depression, overdose, and accidental death.

Behavioral Changes

Ativan misuse can cause significant changes in an individual’s behavior. Favorite activities, family responsibilities, and important relationships are often neglected in favor of getting or using the drug. Listed below are some of the common behavioral warning signs of Ativan abuse:

  • A loss of interest or pleasure in daily activities
  • Withdrawal from social events and family relationships
  • Isolating in one’s room
  • Sleeping too much
  • Unusual irritability or anxiety
  • A confused, drowsy appearance
  • Neglect of hygiene and grooming
  • Borrowing or stealing money
  • Lying about one’s activities
  • A decline in performance on the job or at school

Drug-seeking behaviors are common among people who abuse prescription medications like Ativan. These behaviors may include making appointments with multiple doctors (a practice called “doctor shopping”), exaggerating or falsifying anxiety symptoms, forging prescriptions, or lying about lost prescriptions. Formerly honest, truthful individuals can adopt immoral or unethical behaviors like lying, stealing, or selling drugs once they have become addicted.

Ativan abuse can divide partners, spouses, and family members. Even when there is an authentic need for the medication, such as anxiety, insomnia, or panic attacks, loved ones can become frustrated and afraid when they watch the legitimate use of a prescription medication turn into addiction. The Center for Substance Abuse Treatment points out that substance abuse can affect families on several different levels:
  • Physical, verbal, and emotional abuse is more common in households where at least one person is abusing drugs.
  • Children may become emotional or physical caregivers for the parent who abuses drugs.
  • A parent who doesn’t abuse drugs may take on the role of the “hero,” while the parent with the substance abuse disorder may turn into a “villain”
  • Members of the extended family may feel angry, guilty, ashamed, or fearful for the person with the substance abuse problem.
  • Parents who abuse drugs may be inconsistent in establishing and maintaining boundaries, resulting in confusion and disciplinary problems among children.

It is important for families to learn that prescription drug abuse is not caused by a lack of willpower or moral weakness, but by a disease process that affects both body and mind. In order to be treated successfully, addiction must be addressed as an illness that affects the entire family system, not simply the individual who is misusing Ativan.

For individuals suffering from anxiety, panic disorder, insomnia, and other issues that affect daily activities, prescription drugs like Ativan can be a useful tool for establishing more normal functional patterns. However, long-term misuse of Ativan can detract from job performance by increasing absenteeism, interfering with cognitive function, slowing down reflexes, and increasing the risk of on-the-job injuries. Over time, this decline in performance may result in demotion or even unemployment, which can place a tremendous financial strain on the individual and loved ones. Although Ativan is a legal drug, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency classifies lorazepam as a Schedule IV narcotic, meaning that it is illegal to use the drug without a prescription. The legal repercussions of abusing Ativan may include fines, jail time, or the loss of child custody and other important privileges. Eventually, misuse of Ativan can have a serious impact on every aspect of users’ lives, including their legal and financial statuses.

Overcoming Ativan Abuse

In order to prevent the potentially dangerous side effects of Ativan withdrawal, such as seizures and rebound anxiety, medically supervised detox and a gradual drug taper are recommended. A drug taper involves a step-by-step, physician-prescribed reduction of the dose of Ativan, until the medication clears the person’s system. Medical detox offers a structured, supportive environment where clients are kept clinically stable until they are ready to start the more intensive work of recovery.

Although long-term Ativan abuse can take a severe toll on a person’s physical and emotional wellbeing, it is never too late to seek help for prescription drug addiction. A comprehensive rehab program, including a full range of therapeutic treatment modalities, can provide the resources that an individual needs to overcome lorazepam addiction safely and effectively.

Last Updated on September 7, 2022
About The Contributor
Editorial Staff
Editorial Staff
Author, American Addiction Centers
The editorial staff of American Addiction Centers is made up of credentialed clinical reviewers with hands-on experience in or expert knowledge of addiction treatment. Read More
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