Prolonged treatment with benzodiazepines is common practice despite clinical recommendations of short-term use. Benzodiazepines are used by approximately 4% of the general population, with increased prevalence in psychiatric populations and the elderly. After long-term use it is often difficult to discontinue benzodiazepines due to psychological and physiological dependence. This review investigated if pharmacological interventions can facilitate benzodiazepine tapering.
To assess the benefits and harms of pharmacological interventions to facilitate discontinuation of chronic benzodiazepine use.
We searched the following electronic databases up to October 2017: Cochrane Drugs and Alcohol Group's Specialised Register of Trials, CENTRAL, PubMed, Embase, CINAHL, and ISI Web of Science. We also searched ClinicalTrials.gov, the WHO ICTRP, and ISRCTN registry, and checked the reference lists of included studies for further references to relevant randomised controlled trials.
We included randomised controlled trials comparing pharmacological treatment versus placebo or no intervention or versus another pharmacological intervention in adults who had been treated with benzodiazepines for at least two months and/or fulfilled criteria for benzodiazepine dependence (any criteria).
We used standard methodological procedures expected by Cochrane.
We included 38 trials (involving 2543 participants), but we could only extract data from 35 trials with 2295 participants. Many different interventions were studied, and no single intervention was assessed in more than four trials. We extracted data on 18 different comparisons. The risk of bias was high in all trials but one. Trial Sequential Analysis showed imprecision for all comparisons.For benzodiazepine discontinuation, we found a potential benefit of valproate at end of intervention (1 study, 27 participants; risk ratio (RR) 2.55, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.08 to 6.03; very low-quality evidence) and of tricyclic antidepressants at longest follow-up (1 study, 47 participants; RR 2.20, 95% CI 1.27 to 3.82; low-quality evidence).We found potentially positive effects on benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms of pregabalin (1 study, 106 participants; mean difference (MD) -3.10 points, 95% CI -3.51 to -2.69; very low-quality evidence), captodiame (1 study, 81 participants; MD -1.00 points, 95% CI -1.13 to -0.87; very low-quality evidence), paroxetine (2 studies, 99 participants; MD -3.57 points, 95% CI -5.34 to -1.80; very low-quality evidence), tricyclic antidepressants (1 study, 38 participants; MD -19.78 points, 95% CI -20.25 to -19.31; very low-quality evidence), and flumazenil (3 studies, 58 participants; standardised mean difference -0.95, 95% CI -1.71 to -0.19; very low-quality evidence) at end of intervention. However, the positive effect of paroxetine on benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms did not persist until longest follow-up (1 study, 54 participants; MD -0.13 points, 95% CI -4.03 to 3.77; very low-quality evidence).The following pharmacological interventions reduced symptoms of anxiety at end of intervention: carbamazepine (1 study, 36 participants; MD -6.00 points, 95% CI -9.58 to -2.42; very low-quality evidence), pregabalin (1 study, 106 participants; MD -4.80 points, 95% CI -5.28 to -4.32; very low-quality evidence), captodiame (1 study, 81 participants; MD -5.70 points, 95% CI -6.05 to -5.35; very low-quality evidence), paroxetine (2 studies, 99 participants; MD -6.75 points, 95% CI -9.64 to -3.86; very low-quality evidence), and flumazenil (1 study, 18 participants; MD -1.30 points, 95% CI -2.28 to -0.32; very low-quality evidence).Two pharmacological treatments seemed to reduce the proportion of participants that relapsed to benzodiazepine use: valproate (1 study, 27 participants; RR 0.31, 95% CI 0.11 to 0.90; very low-quality evidence) and cyamemazine (1 study, 124 participants; RR 0.33, 95% CI 0.14 to 0.78; very low-quality evidence). Alpidem decreased the proportion of participants with benzodiazepine discontinuation (1 study, 25 participants; RR 0.41, 95% CI 0.17 to 0.99; number needed to treat for an additional harmful outcome (NNTH) 2.3 participants; low-quality evidence) and increased the occurrence of withdrawal syndrome (1 study, 145 participants; RR 4.86, 95% CI 1.12 to 21.14; NNTH 5.9 participants; low-quality evidence). Likewise, magnesium aspartate decreased the proportion of participants discontinuing benzodiazepines (1 study, 144 participants; RR 0.80, 95% CI 0.66 to 0.96; NNTH 5.8; very low-quality evidence).Generally, adverse events were insufficiently reported. Specifically, one of the flumazenil trials was discontinued due to severe panic reactions.
Given the low or very low quality of the evidence for the reported outcomes, and the small number of trials identified with a limited number of participants for each comparison, it is not possible to draw firm conclusions regarding pharmacological interventions to facilitate benzodiazepine discontinuation in chronic benzodiazepine users. Due to poor reporting, adverse events could not be reliably assessed across trials. More randomised controlled trials are required with less risk of systematic errors ('bias') and of random errors ('play of chance') and better and full reporting of patient-centred and long-term clinical outcomes. Such trials ought to be conducted independently of industry involvement.