What blockbuster drugs were accidents

Body & Mind - Valium - “Mother's little helper” turns 50

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Appreciated, sung about, demonized - and despite all reservations still in use worldwide: In 1963 Valium ushered in the era of chemical helpers against anxiety, insomnia and nervousness and stubbornly asserts its place in medicine.

When dealing with fears, people have always relied not only on the principle of hope and a robust psyche. Valerian to calm down, alcohol to numb, opium to forget - the spectrum of more or less harmless substances for coping with acute crises and chronic ailments is broad. The use of chemical substances is comparatively new:

  • The beginning of the 20th century came with the Barbiturates launched the first group of drugs that effectively numbed fears on a large scale. Their calming, sleep-inducing, and antispasmodic properties made them popular as sleeping pills and sedatives. The downside of the coin: Medicines such as barbital, Link opens in a new window quickly made addicts and were difficult to dose - those who took a little too much were already in mortal danger. Suicides were also common under the influence of barbiturates. Nevertheless, the drugs were able to hold up and were particularly in demand in the period after the Second World War.
  • In the middle of the 20th century, the big changing of the guard was looming: in the 1950s, the chemist Leo Sternbach received the order from his employer Hoffmann-La Roche to create a new sedative. His molecular experiments resulted in the first Benzodiazepine, the 1960 with the sonorous name Librium («Liberating») was launched.

The Valium anthem

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The Rolling Stones created a musical memorial for the drug Valium with “Mother's Little Helper”, Link opens in a new window. The ironic song appeared in 1966 on the album "Aftermath" and made it to number 8 on the Billboard charts as a single. Since then, “Mother's little helper” has been a common term for tranquilizers of all kinds.

Librium (active ingredient: chlordiazepoxide, link opens in a new window) was an immediate success, but became the successor product launched in 1963 Valium clearly overshadowed: the pill with the active ingredient diazepam, link opens in a new window, was the first blockbuster in pharmaceutical history, and as such brought billions of dollars into Roche coffers and for a time was the most frequently prescribed drug worldwide.

Valium has a calming and anxiety-relieving, antispasmodic, muscle-relaxing and sleep-inducing effect and quickly found broad social acceptance in the sixties - not only in circles keen to experiment, but also in average households, where the calming pill contributed to better coping with everyday life.

The initial euphoria and the real boom in the seventies was soon followed by a certain disillusionment, because Valium was not free from side effects either: regular use led to habituation and dependency, changes in personality could not be ruled out. In addition, the pill did not solve the actual problems, but only ensured short phases of relaxation. The programs on Swiss television that can be accessed above show how ambivalent the relationship with tranquilizers was at that time.

As much as the reputation of Valium in particular and benzodiazepines in general has suffered, they have not disappeared from everyday medical practice 50 years later. Some prominent examples:

  • Diazepam is the method of choice in acute psychiatry for quickly reassuring patients. It is still on the WHO list of “essential drugs”.
  • Midazolam - better known under the brand name Dormicum - is prescribed against sleep disorders and has a permanent place in many Swiss bedside tables.
  • Flunitrazepam (Rohypnol) is used in medicine as a strong sleeping and narcotic drug, but has also fallen into disrepute as a «rapist drug».
  • Lorazepam (Temesta) is used for severe anxiety and panic disorders or for epileptic seizures

Benzodiazepines should only be used for a short time. If the prescription-compliant intake is not checked by the doctor and the drug is not discontinued after 90 days at the latest with a tapering phase, there is a high risk of addiction. So much for the doctrine. In reality, sleeping pills, sedatives and pain relievers are often prescribed and taken over a period of years. In Switzerland, an estimated one to two percent of the population is considered to be dependent on “Benzo” - which is not noticeable in everyday life for the fewest people affected.

Research has been going on for years on benzodiazepine successors with comparable effects and less potential for addiction. So far with little success - “Mother's little helper” could well be with us for another five decades.

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  • Commentary by Monica Ruoff, Bern
    My father was addicted to diazepam; his doctor prescribed it at discretion, even in liquid form to inject himself. In the four years he changed from a caring, reserved and polite person into an uninhibited, cursing egoist, from which my mother in particular suffered badly. When he died of a self-accident in his car, we were more relieved than sad.
    Agree agree to the comment
  • Comment by Eliane Schneider, Zurich
    This report is a little too moderate. It is a scandal that the years of unnecessary, even dangerous treatment (partly of pseudo-illnesses) with psychotropic drugs is paid for by the health insurance - but vice versa, no contribution is made to the swimming subscription! (concrete example: tablets for 2 months: approx. 600.– / regular sports subscription for one year: 220.–)
    Agree agree to the comment
    1. answer from Eliane Schneider, Zurich
      The perverse is, even if you refuse medication as a patient because you feel better and think more clearly without it, it is simply continued to be prescribed under threat, scare tactics and even coercion (e.g. by IV), because diseases (diagnoses) have been invented that, like the Jewish stars in the 3rd Reich, are stuck on in a life crisis and then justify any treatment. If you refuse, you are unapologetic about the disease, which is also presented as a typical symptom. Refined.
      Agree agree to the comment
    2. answer from anonymous, Bern
      And your comment is typical of a person who has never suffered from a mental illness and / or has never known a person with it. I do not wish anyone, including you, ever to suffer from an acute panic attack, thank God there are benzodiazepines.
      Agree agree to the comment
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