Only Ten Percent of Alcoholics Prescribed Medication

By Shawn Dwyer 05/14/14

An analysis of over a hundred case studies showed that alcoholics were denied medications proven to help overcome addiction if only because their benefits are not widely known.

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According to an analysis of over 120 research studies, only ten percent of alcoholics who receive treatment are given medications that have been proven to help.

The analysis was published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association and culled information taken from studies that involved nearly 23,000 patients who were in treatment for alcohol abuse. The studies generally focused on patients taking medications like naltrexone or acamprosate, which helped addicts stop drinking while reducing the number of days alcoholics drank if they relapsed.

The studies also took a look at drugs like topiramate and nalmefene, but only a small number of patients were prescribed those drugs. The popular drug Antabuse was also examined, though researchers found that alcoholics benefited the least from it.

Of all the drugs studied, naltrexone, which blocks brain receptors from receiving pleasure from certain drugs, and acamprosate, which mediates brain chemicals during withdrawal, showed the most promise. But these drugs were rarely prescribed, due in part to few physicians knowing about them.

“People just don’t know about it,” said Dr. Raye Litten, associate director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism's Division of Treatment and Recovery Research. “Many primary care physicians just don’t know about this.”

While some lamented the missed opportunity in providing patients with a proven way to help overcome addiction, medications are just one arrow in the quiver and should be used in conjunction with existing methods.

“In the long term, most people need some kind of behavioral intervention, whether it’s group or individual therapy or mindfulness or religion, if you will,” said Dr. George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “But I think medications help you along the way.”

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Shawn Dwyer is a writer, editor and content producer living in Los Angeles. You can find him on Linkedin.