The Many Ways to Treat Alcoholism

Alcoholism is a devastating illness. The good news is that a study of alcoholism treatment medications and counseling shows  that most therapies were effective in promoting short-term abstinence. Researchers found only the drug acamprosate (Campral) to be less effective than desired.

The study, which was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, involved more than 1,000 individuals who were diagnosed as alcohol-dependent and had recently quit drinking. Patients were broken into smaller study groups, including those who received naltrexone or acamprosate, both, with or without placebos, and with or without a combined behavioral intervention (CBI). One group received CBI only, with no pills. Some groups also received medication management counseling to ensure that patients took their medication and remained abstinent from alcohol.

After four months, all groups demonstrated reduced drinking. The best results were found among participants who received naltrexone and medication management. These individuals stayed abstinent 80.6 percent of the study period. Also found highly effective were CBI plus medical management and placebos (79.2 percent) and naltrexone and CBI plus medical management (77.1 percent).

The one exception was acamprosate, which showed no significant effect on drinking as compared to placebo. However, some researchers questioned this finding, noting that previous European studies have found that acamprosate does promote abstinence.

"No combination produced better efficacy than naltrexone or CBI alone in the presence of medical management," the study concluded, noting that, "Naltrexone with medical management could be delivered in healthcare settings, thus serving alcohol-dependent patients who might otherwise not receive treatment."

This study shows that people struggling with alcoholism or alcohol addiction have a number of treatment options, though some critics have questioned the results, , noting that participants (unlike most alcoholics) were highly motivated to quit. Other critics have suggested that four months isn't long enough to truly assess a treatment's efficacy, since many alcoholics relapse over time.

A one-year follow-up study showed that the patients treated with medications tended to remain abstinent for more days than the placebo-only patients, and that those who received CBI did better than those who had only received medication management.

"This study and others have shown that people should be optimistic about treatment for their alcohol problems, that treatment does work," said the researchers.

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