Medications in the Treatment of Alcohol Abuse

“Hi, I’m Steve, and I’m….” “Hi, Steve.” Sound familiar?

The 12 Step program has been popularized as a method to treat alcoholism. However, while therapy or support groups, such as the 12 Step program or Alcoholics Anonymous, have been proven to be effective for many individuals, up to 70 percent of those treated with these methods alone experience relapse (2).  Sometimes the impact of alcohol abuse on daily life is so significant that it warrants adding a medication to the psychotherapy, group and holistic treatments. 

A growing amount of research supports the use of certain medications in treating alcohol dependence to reduce the risk of relapse in conjunction with support groups and psychological treatment (2). These medications can make it easier to achieve abstinence and to maintain it (2).

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence defines alcoholism as a disease or medical condition, not deviant behavior (3). Treating alcohol abuse as a medical condition can help with reducing the stigma of addiction and the stigma of seeking help.  Hopefully framing alcohol abuse as a medical condition will help individuals, who are already stressed and suffering to seek medical attention for the alcohol problem as one would any other medical illness, similar to using antibiotics to treat strep throat (3). Because of the cultural stigma of pursuing help, alcohol addiction can often go untreated for years or even decades. 

Understanding that medication are a treatment option for alcohol abuse can create an acceptable option for individuals who may not be interested in support group or psychotherapy treatment or not have access to such resources.  A few of the key medications that can be used for the treatment of alcohol abuse include:

Antabuse – the oldest medication for alcohol abuse blocks the metabolism of alcohol and is an aversive treatment that while carries some risks and can be very helpful.  Antabuse can be a family based approach that allows partner or family members to support the individual working towards overcoming alcohol addiction.

Naltexone – helps to reduce cravings for alcohol and blocks the release of endorphins with drinking. The blockade of endorphins helps people to gain control over how many drinks they have and to not crave drinking at all. A research study called Combining Medications and Behavioral Interventions for Alcoholism (COMBINE) paid for by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (and not a drug company) found that naltrexone was as effective as up to 20 sessions of alcohol counseling.

Campral – this medication can increase the periods of abstinence form alcohol but has mixed research results and is less popular among psychiatrists.

Often medications can also be helpful for the treatment of other mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression that may be contributing to the alcohol abuse.

In Brooklyn it is possible to access high quality support group and psychotherapy for alcohol abuse as there are many psychotherapists and psychologists who specialize in addiction care and medication treatment is an additional option when needed.  Medications for alcohol abuse can be prescribed by psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners and by certain other specialized physicians.

In treating alcohol addiction, the goal is full recovery and wellness, and support in the form of individualized care to navigate the different treatment options, including medication, contributes to a greater likelihood for an individual reclaiming control over their life. If you or a loved one is experiencing alcoholism, acknowledging the disease and pursuing a form of treatment that resonates are vital steps in the process of recovery.

Mind Body Seven’s practitioner Natasha Felton, Nurse Practitioner, specializes in using medications to treat alcoholism and other substance abuse issues.