Treatments for Alcoholism – a Review of What Works

Articles On Drug Addiction and Recovery
Treatments for Alcoholism – a Review of What Works
Andra Stanton, LICSW, Clinical Social Worker (University of Massachusetts)
September 12, 2001 (Reviewed: September 8, 2003)
Alcoholism affects millions of people in the United States alone. According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse (NIAA), a division of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland USA, at least 700,000 Americans receive treatment for this disease every day. Some kinds of treatment, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) have been around for many years while others are relatively new. Clinical research to determine the effectiveness of these various treatments has resulted in some important findings.
 In October 2000 the NIAA released a summary of its conclusions based on fifteen years of research on alcohol treatments. According to the NIAA, self-help programs such as AA, psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy, either alone or in combination, are in fact effective and do reduce the use of alcohol.
 Alcoholics Anonymous
Of all the treatments for alcohol misuse, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is probably the most well known. In AA, a form of “self-help” treatment, participants take part in a series of mental, written and verbal activities that can lead to recovery and abstinence. In one study, alcoholic patients who received inpatient and outpatient psychotherapy, as well as AA, had better outcomes than those patients who attended only one kind of treatment.
It is thought that AA helps people because it provides a new social network that replaces the alcohol abuser’s usual group of friends who drink with him or her, and provides a fellowship that inspires motivation and lends support toward the goal of reaching and maintaining abstinence. AA also teaches a set of coping skills so that, when stressed, the alcohol abuser has more constructive ways of coping, and does not need to turn to alcohol to escape his or her problems.
Another study, conducted at a Department of Veteran Affairs hospital, indicated that those alcoholic patients who underwent either cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or a 12-step program in combination with CBT did better, over the long run, than those who participated in the 12-step program alone. (CBT entails learning coping skills, new ways of interpreting and reacting to stressful situations, and changing one’s destructive or maladaptive behavior patterns.) The patients who received the combination treatment stayed sober longer and were able to hold down a job for longer periods than those patients who received only CBT.
Both of these studies seem to show that a combination of some kind of psychotherapy and a 12-step program such as AA produces the most beneficial results for patients who use alcohol in excess.
Other beneficial treatments
Other promising treatments of alcohol abuse that are being studied include Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET); couples therapy; Brief Intervention Therapy; dual-addiction treatment; and pharmacotherapy.
Motivational Enhancement Therapy: The key component of MET is an interviewing technique conducted by a trained psycho-therapist. The goal of this method is to increase an individual’s degree of motivation to stop drinking and to maintain abstinence. This is accomplished by the therapist gauging the individual’s readiness to change and then adjusting feedback accordingly. An intensive, individualized interviewing strategy, MET was demonstrated to overcome many patients’ disinclination to address their alcohol problem in treatment and increase their willingness to change.
Couples Therapy: Patients who include their non-alcohol abusing partners in their psychotherapy are more apt to attend therapy, and more likely to alter their unhealthy drinking habits. In one model of couples therapy known as Behavioral-Marital Therapy (BMT), communication and conflict-resolution skills are taught. When a relapse-prevention plan was added to this model, alcohol abstinence rates were even higher.
Brief Intervention Therapy: This treatment method usually takes place when alcohol users visit their primary care physicians. It typically entails the imparting of information about the negative consequences of drinking to excess, as well as supportive programs in the community. Two studies, carried out in the United States and Canada, showed that patients did reduce their alcohol consumption as a result of these interventions. This treatment seems to work best with those individuals who are at-risk for alcohol abuse. Those who are already dependent are better off being referred to specialized treatment programs.
Dual-addiction treatment: This method attempts to target both cigarette (nicotine) and alcohol dependencies at once. The use of one of these substances seems to make an individual more susceptible to dependence on the other. The rationale behind dual-addiction treatment is that reducing dependence on one may help a person reduce his or her reliance on the other. Although this is a newer approach to treatment, a recent study seems to suggest that this is indeed the case.
Pharmacotherapy: Finally, if taken on a regular basis, the drug naltrexone, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1995, can be a valuable aid in preventing relapse among recovering alcoholics receiving psychotherapy. Another medication, acamprosate, proved helpful in several European trials. (Editor’s note: It is now undergoing clinical trials in the United States.) Zofran, a medication usually used to prevent nausea during chemotherapy for cancer, was beneficial in the treatment of early-onset (i.e. those who started drinking heavily before age 25) alcoholism. Sertraline (Zoloft), an anti-depressant, was found to be helpful in reducing drinking in those with late-onset alcoholism.
Using proven methods of evaluating medical therapies, recent research reveals that many effective treatments exist to help people to stop drinking and maintain abstinence. These treatments include self-help groups such as AA, psychosocial approaches and medications.
Continued research in the field of alcoholism is likely to produce highly specific medications that will reduce the craving for alcohol. It will also yield an even broader range of therapies, including those mentioned here, that will improve the alcohol abusing person’s chance for recovery.
Over time, those who suffer from alcohol abuse and/or dependence will have even more and possibly better options for successful treatment. In the meantime, effective treatments already being offered by mental health professionals and community groups have been demonstrated to reduce alcohol use and promise a better life for people who make use of them.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.