Alcoholism, also known as alcohol use disorder or alcohol addiction affects millions of people on a daily basis. For those suffering from alcoholism, there are various forms of treatment available including therapy and support groups. Additionally, medication can play a vital role in the recovery process when combined with therapy and support groups.
While it may seem strange to treat a substance use disorder with medication, the concept of medication and medication-assisted treatment has proven to be effective for various types of substances of abuse, including alcohol.
This blog will delve into what alcoholism entails and explore the different types of medication available to support individuals on their path to recovery.
Table of Contents
Alcoholism is a type of substance use disorder centered around the use and abuse of alcohol. Like other types of substance use disorder, alcoholism affects a person both physically and mentally and is characterized by the following:
- Loss of control – Difficulty limiting or stopping alcohol consumption.
- Cravings – Strong urges or desires to drink alcohol.
- Tolerance – Needing increased amounts of alcohol to achieve the desired effect.
- Withdrawal symptoms – Experiencing physical and psychological distress when attempting to quit or reduce alcohol intake.
For someone suffering from alcohol use disorder, seeking professional treatment right away is crucial. When not treated properly, the withdrawal symptoms associated with alcohol abuse and addiction can lead to serious medical problems including:
- High blood pressure
- Liver disease
- Heart disease
Because withdrawing from alcohol can be so dangerous and even deadly, it is important that the detox and withdrawal process be done under the care and supervision of trained medical professionals. This can be done at either a local medical facility, a dedicated detox center, or a treatment center that also offers medical detox services.
When it comes to treating alcoholism specifically, the FDA has approved three different medications that can be used during the detox process to help alleviate and treat withdrawal symptoms. These medications may also be administered during treatment as part of a medication-assisted treatment program.
Disulfiram was the first medication used to treat alcoholism, becoming FDA-approved in 1951. Disulfiram inhibits the enzyme responsible for breaking down alcohol, leading to an accumulation of acetaldehyde in the body. This causes the boy to have an adverse reaction if alcohol is consumed, including:
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing
By creating this adverse reaction to alcohol, Disulfiram helps discourage and even prevent drinking during the detox and treatment process.
Naltrexone is an opioid receptor antagonist that reduces alcohol cravings as well as the pleasurable effects of alcohol. It works by blocking the opioid receptors, thereby diminishing the rewarding sensations associated with alcohol consumption. By eliminating the satisfaction of drinking, someone in detox or the early stages of recovery will be less likely to want to drink or even think about drinking.
Naltrexone can be administered orally or via an extended-release injectable form (Vivitrol).
Acamprosate helps individuals maintain abstinence by reducing alcohol cravings and withdrawal symptoms. It acts on the neurotransmitter systems in the brain, restoring the balance disrupted by long-term alcohol abuse.
Acamprosate is typically prescribed after detoxification and during the early stages of recovery.
While those three are the only medications specifically approved to treat alcoholism and its side effects, there are some other medications that doctors and treatment professionals have been trying that have shown to have good results.
Examples of these medications include:
- Topiramate – Originally developed as an anticonvulsant, it has also shown efficacy in reducing alcohol cravings. It affects various neurotransmitters, including glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which play a role in the reward and reinforcement pathways associated with alcohol addiction.
- Baclofen – Primarily used as a muscle relaxant, this medication acts on GABA receptors, reducing alcohol cravings and promoting abstinence. Baclofen is often given to individuals who have not responded well to other medications or those with high levels of alcohol dependence.
- Gabapentin – FDA-approved for treating epilepsy and nerve pain caused by shingles. Much like topiramate, it has also been proven to be effective in helping those with alcoholism reduce and ultimately stop their drinking. Studies have also found that gabapentin can help treat alcohol addiction withdrawal symptoms. Similarly to baclofen as well, it is often given to those who have not had success taking other medications such as naltrexone or acamprosate.
It’s important to remember that while medication can play an important role in the treatment and recovery of alcoholism, it is not a stand-alone treatment method. Medication is most effective when combined with comprehensive therapy, counseling, and support groups.
Behavioral therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) have proven to be the most effective forms of therapy when it comes to treating alcohol use disorder. Behavioral therapies help address the underlying psychological aspects of alcohol abuse and addiction. By identifying these underlying causes, the therapist can work with the patient to find better, healthier coping mechanisms that don’t involve drinking.
Medication plays a valuable role in supporting individuals on their journey to recovery from alcoholism. Disulfiram, naltrexone, and acamprosate are FDA-approved medications that have shown promise in reducing alcohol cravings, managing withdrawal symptoms, and preventing relapse.
However, it is important to remember that medication is just one component of treatment. Seeking professional help, participating in therapy, and building a strong support network are vital steps toward overcoming alcohol abuse and achieving long-term sobriety.
At Casco Bay Recovery, we understand the importance medication has in the overall treatment process. That’s why we offer medication-assisted treatment for those suffering from alcoholism and other forms of substance use disorder.
For more information on our medication-assisted treatment programs or to learn about how we can help you get started on the road to recovery, contact us today.