Xanax (also known by the generic name “alprazolam”) is a fast-acting benzodiazepine medication that is prescribed for a wide variety of conditions—but especially panic, anxiety and insomnia, because of Xanax’ tranquilizing effects. Since its approval by the FDA in the 1970s’s for the treatment of panic disorder, the drug has become so popular that it reportedly ranks fifth among most prescribed medications in this country. For an in-depth look at the medical protocol for Xanax detox and why professionally supervised withdrawal is so critical, as well as the latest firsthand information from addiction experts regarding what to expect in the way of a withdrawal timeline and symptoms, read on.
Xanax Addiction and Withdrawal Seizures – Why Professional Detox Is Critical
As a Schedule IV controlled substance, Xanax is highly addictive: the use of any benzodiazepine drug can cause changes in the brain that create cravings and chemical dependency, because over time the brain needs higher and higher amounts of the drug to achieve the same tranquilizing effect; but because Xanax is especially quick-acting—it has a very short half life, going in and out of the body very fast—many Xanax users will experience mild withdrawal symptoms between doses, leading to greater abuse and addiction potential.
The same dynamic also means that an addiction to Xanax can develop within a very short period of time. For example, daily benzo use for six weeks or more resulted in dependency for four out of 10 benzo users, in findings by the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Consequently, it’s not unheard of for someone addicted to Xanax to end up taking 20 to 30 pills a day. In fact, that daily intake describes the average person with a Xanax addiction, according to a 2015 Health Research Funding (HRF) statistic.
These dangers of addiction can happen to anyone taking Xanax, but they are higher for people:
- with a diagnosis of panic disorder who take doses of 4mg/day for longer than 12 weeks, according to a report by the FDA.
- who use Xanax as a secondary drug of abuse in combination with an opiate painkiller. (86 percent of people who seek treatment for a Xanax addiction say they use Xanax as a secondary drug, HRF reported.)
Withdrawal from Xanax can be medically risky, even life-threatening, moreover— which is why supervised detox and treatment are in the best interest of anyone with an addiction to Xanax. As with alcohol withdrawal, life-threatening seizures and convulsions are a very real risk “if you try to detox [from Xanax] on your own,” according to addiction psychiatrist Dr. Edward Zawadzki, who supervises Xanax detox for clients at Beach House Center for Recovery.
Dr. Zawadzki said it’s not uncommon in his practice to see “youngish” patients “try withdrawal on their own, have a seizure, fall and give themselves a head injury … or break their teeth.” On other occasions, someone may have a withdrawal-related seizure while driving or while swimming in the pool. “This stuff happens.”
Exactly how often seizures occur during Xanax withdrawal is hard to say. A study in 1995 found that 3 percent of patients receiving treatment for benzo addiction experienced seizures. Because this figure only accounts for benzo users in treatment, however, it’s safe to assume that the risks of seizure during withdrawal are actually higher than 3 percent among the larger population (of people with a benzo abuse problem).
Rather than making a risky health gamble, then, supervised detox ensures that clients are closely monitored 24/7 during withdrawal, so that if a seizure does occur, they can receive immediate and potentially life-saving medical care. The good news, too, is that with professional detox and treatment many people do go on to recover from Xanax addiction, thanks to a comprehensive plan of care that combines safer and less addictive medications with behavioral counseling.
Learn more about that detox and treatment timeline and potential symptoms of withdrawal during early recovery in the next section.
Xanax Withdrawal Timeline
Research shows that withdrawal from Xanax is more severe than withdrawal from other longer-acting benzos. Someone on high doses of Xanax can experience an even more severe withdrawal.
The withdrawal timeline and symptoms for clients with an addiction to Xanax can also vary on the basis of factors like:
- the severity of addiction (level and duration of use)
- the presence of a co-occurring disorder (such as an anxiety or panic disorder)
- previous withdrawal attempts
- whether Xanax is a secondary drug of abuse (used in combination with alcohol, prescription painkillers or other illicit drugs)
At Beach House Center for Recovery, the general protocol for Xanax detox involves a gradual tapering off the drug, which is replaced by a longer-acting benzodiazepine medication like Librium or Valium— “the point being that … [the longer-acting benzo] stays in the body longer, so the withdrawal symptoms are a lot less,” according to Dr. Zawadzki. He said that withdrawal from Xanax takes “seven day on average.” During this time, clients typically start with “a moderate dose of Librium that decreases over time, so that it’s a soft landing while you’re on the taper.”
Common Xanax Withdrawal Symptoms in Early Recovery
Anxiety and tremors are by far the most common withdrawal symptoms that Dr. Zawadzki sees among clients in early recovery from Xanax. “Xanax is a benzo,” he explained, “so anything that falls in this category will have, along with alcohol, an almost identical withdrawal symptom complex that includes things like tremors, feeling unwell, shakiness, and nervousness.”
Other reported symptoms of withdrawal from Xanax can include:
- Depression and panic disorders
- Suicidal thoughts
- Psychotic reactions
- Heart palpitations
- Mood swings and irritability
- Memory and concentration problems
- Muscle pains
- Ringing in the ears
Benzo Withdrawal Syndrome
In addition to being at greater risk of seizures and psychotic reactions in early recovery, high-dose Xanax users can develop a condition known as “benzo withdrawal syndrome.” The condition can involve extreme rebound anxiety and other uncomfortable symptoms that, following the body’s elimination of the drug, can last anywhere from weeks to months. In these cases, medical treatment and supervision can help recovering Xanax users manage their symptoms more comfortably and with less temptation to relapse.