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Millions of people battling addiction to prescription drugs

Millions of people battling addiction to prescription drugs in ‘hidden crisis’, experts warn

  • Scottish government data shows a dramatic spike in tranquiliser-related deaths 
  • Worryingly, Benzodiazepine fatalities jumped from 192 in 2015 to 555 in 2017
  • Medical professionals believe this trend is likely replicating itself across the UK 

The UK is harbouring a ‘hidden crisis’ of prescription drug addictions.

That’s the stark warning coming from medical experts, who say increasing numbers of patients are seeking help for misuse of anxiety medicines.

And, worryingly, millions of people could be affected.

It comes as Scottish government data shows a dramatic spike in deaths related to branded tranquilisers, such as Xanax.

Rise: The number of benzodiazepine deaths in Scotland, relating to drugs such as Valium and Ativan, rose from 192 in 2015 to 555 in 2017 

According to official figures by the National Records of Scotland, there were 99 fatalities related to the drug in 2017 – up from two in 2015.

Meanwhile, general benzodiazepine deaths, relating to other drugs such as Valium and Ativan, rose from 192 in 2015 to 555 in 2017. 

Typically, those affected were men over the age of 35.

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However, medical professionals believe the problem likely goes beyond this profile to affect countless others from numerous demographics.

This is despite the fact benzodiazepines are only available via doctors and are usually only prescribed for short-term use.

Users circumvent this by illegally purchasing the products online. 

Harry Shapiro, the director of DrugWise, told The Guardian that he believes the trend in Scotland is likely to be replicating itself across the UK.

Illegal trade: Users circumvent the need for a prescription by purchasing the products online


Benzodiazepines should only be used to treat severe anxiety or severe insomnia that is having a significant impact on your day-to-day life.

There are some situations when their use may not be appropriate. After a bereavement, for example, tranquillisers may numb your emotions and prevent you from grieving properly. But if you are unable to sleep because of grief and anxiety, a sleeping pill may help you to relax and start to recover.

Benzodiazepines are likely to be most effective if you take them as a one-off dose for one occasion, and not as continuous treatment.

The usual advice is that they should not be taken for longer than four weeks, and should not be taken every day. However, depending on individual circumstances, some doctors may prescribe them at low doses for long periods and this does not always cause a problem – this could be the best treatment for some people.


‘There is no data for it, but if you add up all the clinical reports, anecdotal evidence – bearing in mind number of prescriptions – there are millions of prescriptions written every year, for a range of drugs. 

‘I cannot believe the toll this takes doesn’t go into the millions,’ he said.  

His warning comes just a few months after it was revealed that millions of people are taking the highly-addictive gabapentinoid (GABA) drug, a group of medicines developed for epilepsy, but which act on a nerve receptor thought to be key to sending pain signals in the brain. 

GABA drugs are increasingly being used to treat nerve pain such as diabetic neuropathy (a complication of diabetes), shingles pain and trigeminal neuralgia (severe facial pain).

Over the past ten years, the use of these drugs in the UK has rocketed; prescriptions of gabapentin have risen fivefold (from 1 million in 2006 to 6.5 million in 2016), while those for the GABA drug pregabalin, also licensed for anxiety, have risen tenfold (from just under 500,000 to 5.5 million).

Around 1.3 million Britons now take GABA drugs, according to figures from the Public Health Research Consortium (PHRC), a research organisation funded by the Department of Health. This is a huge rise from the 100,000 or so taking them in 2000.


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