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Sober Surprise From Alcoholism Study

Psychology Can Help, Drug Study Shows
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Jan. 4, 2006 -- Psychology plays a role in the success of drugs that treat severe alcoholism, a new German study shows.

"We found an [alcohol] abstinence rate of more than 50% among the patients studied," researcher Hannelore Ehrenreich, MD, DVM, says in a news release.

She and her colleagues report that two alcoholism drugs -- Antabuse and calcium carbimide -- were tied to alcohol abstinence.

The drugs seemed to be well-tolerated, even with long-term use. The longer patients took the drugs, the more likely they were to stay sober, even after stopping the drugs, Ehrenreich says.

She works at the Max Planck Institute of Experimental Medicine in Gottingen, Germany.

Fake Drugs Also Counted

Fake drugs that didn't contain any medication were also associated with alcohol abstinence.

"Sham alcohol deterrents are as efficient as [Antabuse] or calcium carbimide, provided that the use is repeatedly explained and continuously guided and encouraged," Ehrenreich says.

The psychological counseling given to patients may be the reason, the researchers write. Their study appears in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

Long-Term Study

The study included 180 people with severe alcoholism who were enrolled in a two-year outpatient program to address their alcoholism through counseling and medications.

After alcohol detoxification, participants got real alcoholism drugs (Antabuse or calcium carbimide) or fake drugs. The sham drugs were only given to patients with medical conditions that ruled out using the real drugs.

Participants were followed for nine years. They didn't take the drugs that long, tapering off the medications after a year had passed (with some staying on Antabuse for a longer time).

Because people don't always accurately report their drinking habits, participants got blood tests to check for signs of alcohol use.

Better Results From Psychology?

Participants' odds of not relapsing were better than half (52%) over the nine-year period. Their odds of not drinking any alcohol during that time were better than one in four (26%).

The fake and real drugs were both tied to alcohol abstinence and called "alcohol deterrents" by the researchers. Antabuse causes a person to have unpleasant effects if alcohol is consumed, thus serving as a negative deterrent.

Besides taking the drugs, participants also got psychological counseling. The therapists "dramatically outline[d] the danger of drinking alcohol under the influence of the alcohol deterrent," write the researchers.

The therapists also praised patients for staying sober and stressed the importance of building an alcohol-free lifestyle.

If participants started drinking, they got what the researchers call "aggressive aftercare." That included immediate steps -- including unscheduled visits to participants' homes by the therapists -- to nip relapses in the bud.

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