Do Medications for Alcoholism Actually Work?

glass of alcohol

For those who struggle with a drinking problem, medications for alcoholism are often prescribed in order to allow individuals the opportunity to develop the skills necessary for a path to recovery. Some medications reduce cravings for alcohol while others induce unbearable sickness after drinking alcohol.

Types of Medications for Alcoholism

  • Disulfiram

Commonly known by the name Antabuse, disulfiram was the first medication for alcoholism treatment approved by the FDA. Disulfiram prevents the liver from processing acetaldehyde, the enzyme produced when alcohol is consumed. A buildup of acetaldehyde creates such overwhelming and unpleasant side effects as nausea and heart palpitations.

  • Naltrexone

Naltrexone is available in two forms: pills (Revia) and a monthly injection (Vivitrol). Naltrexone operates by reducing alcohol cravings resulting in individuals drinking less or quitting altogether. The monthly injection form is favorable due to its consist delivery of the medication.

  • Acamprosate

Also known as Campral, acamprosate stimulates a neurotransmitter in the brain and reduces the mental and physical discomfort that takes place when alcoholics are not drinking. Difficulties arise when acamprosate is taken while still drinking, though, so complete abstinence is suggested before starting the medication.

How Effective Is Medication Treatment?

Medication alone can encourage those with an alcohol use disorder to abstain from drinking. Either by relieving cravings or instigating sickness, medication treatment provides a helpful way to put some space between an alcoholic and a drink. Through this separation they are able to cultivate the coping mechanisms needed to avoid drinking in the future.

Issues arise with pill-form medications due to individuals forgetting or neglecting to take them daily. Skipping doses compromises the ability to stay sober. This has led to an increase in the prescribing of injection-form naltrexone due to its 30-day efficacy.

Studies have shown the increased effectiveness of medications for alcoholism when combined with therapy. Through sessions with a therapist, those with alcoholism can learn healthy alternatives to drinking as well as ways to decline when offered a drink in the future. Support groups such as 12-step programs also increase the chances of prolonged sobriety when used in combination with medication. Robert B. Huebner points out in his report Advances in Alcoholism Treatment that the availability of 12-step programs outside of regular counseling office hours provides an excellent, cost-effective alternative to therapy.

Ultimately, without the honest intent to remain sober, recovery is an incredibly difficult path to take. Oftentimes, those in the recovery community insist that an alcoholic without that aim will not stay sober, with or without medication. When an individual approaches treatment for alcoholism with a true desire to stay sober, medications for alcoholism are most effective.



Robert B. Huebner, Ph.D. & Lori Wolfgang Kantor, M.A.

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