Close to a million Americans are treated for alcoholism on a daily basis. For the past 3 decades, the majority of treatments have been empirical and the success of the treatments has never been verified by clinical trials. The numerous methods developed in the treatment of alcohol addiction include the use of medications, psychological, social, behavioral methods and self-help groups- all designed to help achieve abstinence from alcohol.
The initial approaches to alcohol treatment were all based on self-help and over the years the 12-step self-help program has become the gold standard. Other treatments include brief intervention by visiting the primary care physician or trained nurses. Behavioral and psychosocial support therapies have evolved over years and generally involve long term therapy. Over the last 2 decades, motivational enhancement therapy and involvement of the non-drinking spouse therapy have evolved and produced good results.
Of course, over the past 4 decades, pharmacological approaches to alcoholism treatment have made some progress, but the ideal drug is still remains to be discovered.
The majority of individuals with alcohol dependence initially always denies that they have a problem and are reluctant to undergo therapy. Agreeing to undergo alcohol treatment usually occurs after the individual encounters health, family, employment or legal problems. Depending on the situation of the individual, various treatments are available to help with alcohol dependence. The initial part of the treatment involves evaluation, a brief intervention and either an in/outpatient program or counseling.
Principles of Alcohol Dependence Treatment
Before alcohol treatment can begin; one has to determine if the individual is alcohol dependent. For some who drink socially and are in control over their drinking, treatment may simply require reduction of drinking. For those who have no control over their drinking the best treatment is abstinence.
To maintain abstinence, the best approach is to be included with alcohol abuse therapists. These specialists can help develop specific-tailor made treatment plans, which may include objectives, behavioral modification skills, use of self-help manuals, counseling and follow-up care at a treatment center.
Non Drug Residential treatment programs
There are numerous non-drug residential alcoholism treatment institutions and include therapy to maintain abstinence, individual and group therapy, participation in alcoholism support groups (such as Alcoholics Anonymous), educational seminars, spousal involvement, work assignments, physical and non-physical activity therapy. Most of these residential programs have professional counselors and staff involved in the treatment of alcohol dependence.
All individuals undergo a complete physical and medical assessment prior to therapy. The essence of all residential programs is to commence detoxification and treatment of withdrawal symptoms that may occur. Hard-hitting psychological counseling and psychiatric treatment is offered to individuals, couples and their families. The principal emphasis of all residential programs is on recognition of the problem and motivation for abstinence. Individuals who are unable to fulfill this basic criterion usually do not succeed with therapy.
Psychological, Behavioral and Social therapy
Numerous behavioral approaches to alcohol dependence treatment include psychological therapy. The primary component of these therapies is motivational enhancement therapy. This therapy is designed to help the individual become more responsible and develop a change in his life style.
Various forms of counseling are available and may involve cognitive behavior therapy to help cope with distorted/abnormal thoughts and help develop a sense of control over these thoughts and feelings.
The majority of psychological therapies often involve the non-alcoholic spouse as most studies show that couple participation increases the likelihood of abstinence from alcohol. Behavioral –marital therapy is a combination of an approach to drinking treatment while strengthening the marital relationship through sharing, teaching and communication skills.
The most common self-help group in the treatment of alcohol dependence is Alcoholics Anonymous. This is one of the most common and easily available groups in any community.
Alcoholics usually get involved with AA before seeking professional help, as a part of it, or as aftercare following professional treatment. Although anecdotal data on the success of AA are plentiful, results indicate that inpatient treatment, a combination of professional treatment and AA, will achieve better results for more people than AA alone. The reason why AA has been beneficial as a treatment for alcohol addiction includes isolating the individual from his social network of alcoholic friends, providing psychological/social support, teaching coping skills and structured behavior treatment.
Some individuals receive counseling from primary care physicians and trained nursing professionals. This consists of numerous office visits and counseling. The majority of these brief interventions help those with acute alcoholic crises. Following the brief intervention, all individuals are recommended to enter specialized treatment programs if the alcohol consumption continues.
Disulfiram (Antabuse) is an alcohol-sensitizing drug which has been around for at least 40 years. It was the first drug used for aversion therapy. It provides a strong deterrent to alcohol. It is not a cure and does not decrease the craving for alcohol. If taken before an alcoholic drink, it causes a severe reaction that includes nausea, vomiting, facial flushing and headaches. The drug is rarely used to day as the severe reaction is not tolerated and most alcoholics are reluctant to take it.
Naltrexone (ReVia), is an antagonist of morphine and has been found to decrease the urge to drink. As is the case with all addiction disorders, however, naltrexone is only effective if taken on a regular basis.
Acamprosate (Campral) is a drug that decreases alcohol cravings and helps maintain abstinence from alcohol. Unlike disulfiram, naltrexone and acamprosate have fewer side effects and do not produce serious nausea and vomiting if alcohol is consumed.
Recently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first injectable drug to treat alcohol dependence. Vivitrol, a drug similar to naltrexone is administered by an intramuscular injection in the buttocks monthly. It has been shown to decrease the urge to drink by blocking neuro receptors/transmitters that may be coupled with alcohol dependence. Vivitrol has no effect on the withdrawal symptoms due to alcohol. The drug is recommended for use by alcoholics who are undergoing psychosocial therapy and have not consumed any alcohol in the recent past. The drug is also available as a pill, but it has been found that the injectable formulation is easier for individuals recovering from alcohol dependence and only has to be administered once a month.
Even though some drugs may reduce alcohol drinking, it is highly recommended that individuals enter in aftercare programs and prop up groups to help prevent relapse and encourage motivational behavioral and life style changes.
Research supports the idea of using drugs as an adjunct to the psychosocial/behavioral therapy for alcohol abuse and dependence. However, additional clinical trials are needed to identify those patients who will most likely benefit from such an approach, to determine the most appropriate medications for different individuals, to develop optimal dosing formulas, and to develop strategies for improving patient compliance with medication protocols.
With continued research on the effect of alcohol on the brain and behavior, hopefully this will lead to the magic pill. Drugs to decrease alcohol craving are around but specific medications are still missing. In the meantime, combination of drug therapy and the use of behavioral/therapies are the best hope for recovery of the individual and the lives of loved ones-who suffer from alcohol abuse and dependence.
- Gabbard: "Treatments of Psychiatric Disorders". Published by the American Psychiatric Association: 3rd edition, 2001
- Cabinet Office Strategy Unit Alcohol misuse: How much does it cost? September 2003
- New York Daily News (William Sherman) Test targets addiction gene 11 February 2006
- Ulf Berggren, Claudia Fahlke, Erik Aronsson, Aikaterini Karanti, Matts Eriksson, Kaj Blennow, Dag Thelle, Henrik Zetterberg and Jan Balldin The TaqIA DRD2 A1 Allele Is Associated with Alcohol-Dependence although its Effect Size Is Small Alcohol and Alcoholism 2006 41(5):479-485;
- Ewing, John A. “Detecting Alcoholism: The CAGE Questionnaire” JAMA 252: 1905-1907, 1984
- Pendery et al. Controlled drinking by alcoholics? New findings and a reevaluation of a major affirmative study. Science 1982 Jul 9;217 (4555):169-75.
- O'Malley, S.S., Jaffe, A.J., Rode, S., and Rounsaville, B.J. (1996) Experience of a “slip among alcoholics treated with Naltrexone or placebo. American Journal of Psychiatry, 153(2): 281-283.
- Maxwell, S., and Shinderman, M.S. (1997) Naltrexone in the treatment of dually-diagnosed patients. Journal of Addictive Diseases 16: A27, 125, 1997
- Maxwell, S., and Shinderman M.S. (2000) Use of Naltrexone in the treatment of alcohol use disorders in patients with concomitant severe mental illness. Journal of Addictive Diseases 19:61-69.
- World Health Organization Global Status Report on Alcohol 2004 Global Status Report on Alcohol 2004 accessed 3 January 2007
- World Health Organization Global Alcohol Database 3 January 2007 Economic cost of alcohol consumption
- Berry, Ralph E.; Boland James P. The Economic Cost of Alcohol Abuse The Free Press, New York, 1977
- Royce, James E. and Scratchley, David Alcoholism and Other Drug Problems Free Press, March 1996