While the 12 Step program is one of the most well known treatment options for alcoholism and has helped millions suffering from addiction, up to 70 percent of those enrolled in it and other such programs experience relapse (2). For these individuals, medications may provide the relief that therapy alone does not. There is a growing body of research supporting the use of certain medications, in conjunction with support groups and psychological treatment, to treat alcoholism and effectively reduce the risk of relapse (2).
When it comes to treating alcoholism with medication, it helps first to address the cultural stigma that places blame on the individual for being weak willed, lazy, or irresponsible. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence defines alcoholism as a disease or medical condition, not as a deviant behavior (3). This scientific framing of alcoholism can help to reduce the stigma surrounding it and lift a heavy burden of blame off of those it impacts. Our society still has a long way to go when it comes to this reframing, and it comes at a cost: many suffering from addiction will delay seeking help for the disease for years or even decades due to the shame and stigma. When we can start to see alcoholism as we would diabetes or other disease states, awareness of the pharmaceutical treatment options will likely also increase.
A few of the key medications that can be used for the treatment of alcohol abuse include:
Antabuse – The oldest medication for alcohol abuse, it blocks the metabolism of alcohol and acts as an aversive treatment, making consumption of alcohol- even one sip- an extremely unpleasant experience. Because of the intensity of the drug, Antabuse can work well as 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 keep individuals more aware of how many drinks they are consuming and quell the desire to drink 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, found that naltrexone was as effective as up to 20 sessions of alcohol counseling.
Campral – Can be used as a treatment for those already abstaining from alcohol use by stabilizing natural balance of neurotransmitters in the brain. It’s effectiveness is contingent upon alcohol abstinence and psychotherapy (group or individual), and due to the severity of side effects that some experience, it is a less popular choice among psychiatrists.
Often the above medications can also be helpful in the treatment of other mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression which may be occurring alongside alcoholism and increasing its severity.
If you live in Brooklyn or other metropolitan areas, it is often possible to access high quality support groups and psychotherapy for alcohol abuse as there are many psychotherapists and psychologists who specialize in addiction care. Medications for alcohol abuse can be prescribed by psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners and by certain other specialized physicians. Used in conjunction, these options can be highly effective in treating alcoholism.
The goal of these alcohol addiction therapies is full recovery and wellness. Having support in the form of individualized care helps individuals to navigate the different treatment options available, including medication, and contributes to a greater likelihood of successful treatment outcomes. If you or a loved one is experiencing alcoholism, acknowledging the disease as a problem and pursuing a form of treatment that resonates are two vital steps in the process to recovery.
Mind Body Seven practitioner Natasha Felton, is a Nurse Practitioner who specializes in using medications to treat alcoholism and other substance abuse issues. If you are someone struggling with alcoholism and think medication may be for you, please do not hesitate to schedule a consultation.