What Are the Treatments for Alcohol Use Disorder?

Alcohol use disorder is what doctors call it when you can’t control how much you drink and have trouble with your emotions when you’re not drinking. Some people may think the only way to deal with it is with willpower, as if it’s a problem they have to work through all on their own.

But alcohol use disorder is actually considered a brain disease. Alcohol causes changes in your brain that make it hard to quit. Trying to tough it out on your own can be like trying to cure appendicitis with cheerful thoughts. It’s not enough.

An important first step is to learn more about your treatments, and there are a lot to choose from.

Start With Your Doctor

Alcoholism (not a medical term) is a type of alcohol use disorder. Milder cases -- when people abuse alcohol but aren’t dependent on it -- are as well.

Your doctor may say you have alcohol use disorder if you:

  • Feel like you have to drink
  • Can’t control how much you drink
  • Feel bad when you can’t drink

When you meet with your doctor, talk about your goals. Are you trying to drink less or stop drinking completely? Together, you can start to make a treatment plan. You doctor also can refer you to a treatment center or experts who can help.

Treatment Options

The one that’s right for you depends on your situation and your goals. Many people find that a combination of treatments works best, and you can get them together through a program. Some of these are inpatient or residential programs, where you stay at a treatment center for a while. Others are outpatient programs, where you live at home and go to the center for treatment.

Go to Detox

For people who have severe alcohol use disorder, this is a key step. The goal is to stop drinking and give your body time to get the alcohol out of your system. That usually takes a few days to a week.

Most people go to a hospital or treatment center because of withdrawal symptoms like:

Doctors and other experts can keep an eye on you and give you medicine to help with your symptoms.

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See a Counselor or Therapist

With alcohol use disorder, controlling your drinking is only part of the answer. You also need to learn new skills and strategies to use in everyday life. Psychologists, social workers, or alcohol counselors can teach you how to:

  • Change the behaviors that make you want to drink
  • Deal with stress and other triggers
  • Build a strong support system
  • Set goals and reach them

Some people just need a short, focused counseling session. Others may want one-on-one therapy for a longer time to deal with issues like anxiety or depression. Alcohol use can have a big effect on the people close to you, so couples or family therapy can help, too.

Medications

No medicine can “cure” alcohol use disorder, but some can help as you recover. They can make drinking less enjoyable so you don’t want to do it as much:

Drugs used for other conditions -- like smoking, pain, or epilepsy -- also may help with alcohol use disorder. Talk to your doctor to see of one of those might be right for you.

Join a Group

Group therapy or a support group can help during rehab and help you stay on track as life gets back to normal.

Group therapy, led by a therapist, can give you the benefits of therapy along with the support of other members.

Support groups aren’t led by therapists. Instead, these are groups of people who have alcohol use disorder. Examples include Alcoholics Anonymous, SMART Recovery, and other programs. Your peers can offer understanding and advice and help keep you accountable. Many people stay in groups for years.

What to Expect

Recovery can take a long time, so you may need ongoing treatment. And some people in recovery do relapse and drink again. But less than half of people who’ve stayed sober at least a year relapse.

If you do, don’t think you’ve failed. It’s often a stage in the process, and recovery gets easier. After 5 years, only 1 out of 7 people have issues with drinking. Treatment can work -- just give yourself time.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on August 05, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:


National Institute on Drug Abuse: “Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Disorder Treatment: A Research-Based Guide.”

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: “Alcohol Use Disorder: A Comparison Between DSM–IV and DSM–5,” “Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help,” “Alcohol Use Disorder.”

National Institutes of Health NIH News in Health: “Biology of Addiction.”

Alcohol Rehab Guide: “Treating Alcoholism.”

Mayo Clinic: “Alcohol Use Disorder,” “Support Groups: Make Connections, Get Help.”

UpToDate: “Patient education: Alcohol use -- when is drinking a problem? (Beyond the Basics).”

Harvard Health Publications: “Alcohol Withdrawal.”

Recovery.org: “Aftercare Programs for People in Addiction Recovery.”

American Psychological Association: “Psychotherapy: Understanding Group Therapy.”

Medscape: “Alcoholism Treatment & Management.”

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