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Alprazolam Abuse Is Rising

SAMHSA has flagged yet another disturbing trend in prescription drug abuse. Based on data from its Drug Abuse Warning Network, put in place to monitor drug-related emergency department statistics, we are seeing an increase in emergency department visits related to Alprazolam (sold under brand names Xanax and Niravam). This sedative class of drug was the most commonly prescribed psychiatric drug in 2011 and treats various conditions including anxiety and panic attacks. Of course, with such a commonly prescribed drug, there is increased opportunity for abuse. And while alprazolam is strong enough on its own, when it is abused in combination with alcohol, the effects are increased dramatically.

To set the stage, it is important to note that in 2011, over 10% of all emergency department visits as a result of non-medical use of prescription drugs were related to alprazolam. The truly disturbing trend is that from 2005 to 2011, the number of emergency visits increased from about 57,000 to over 120,000.

Our Take: There is no doubt that alprazolam abuse is a serious issue. Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear individuals casually discussing their Xanax use to get some rest on an upcoming flight or other trivial matters. Further, since generalized anxiety disorders are largely diagnosed based on discussions with a patient, it can be hard to pinpoint physical markers of the problem. As a result, patients can manipulate their medical team into prescribing alprazolam.

With that said, the rise in prescription drug abuse has put clinicians all over the country on high alert. Combined with a crackdown on so called “pill mills,” we have heard anecdotal evidence that prescription drug abuse is now on the decline. As a result, SAMHSA’s data collected from 2011 may not accurately paint the picture of the current trend in alprazolam abuse. It will be interesting to see how the fight against prescription drug abuse, which peaked in 2012-2013 has affected the abuse levels we see above. With that said, prescription drug abuse is not an issue that’s going away any time soon. As long as these drugs are being prescribed, the threat is real and present. Even if the trend is downward, the societal cost, not to mention loss of life, is staggering.