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Substance Abuse and Addiction Health Center

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Older Drug Helps Alcoholics Abstain

Motivated Patients Have Many Options, Study Shows

80% Decline in Drinking

Patients received active treatment for 16 weeks, and they were followed for up to a year once therapy ended.

Among the study's major findings:

  • Overall, alcohol consumption decreased by 80% during the 16 weeks of treatment, and all the treatments were well tolerated.
  • Treatment with naltrexone significantly decreased the likelihood of heavy drinking and increased the number of days without drinking, even in the absence of cognitive behavioral therapy.
  • Treatment with acamprosate offered no treatment advantage over placebo treatment, even when it was used in combination with naltrexone, cognitive behavioral therapy, or both.
  • Behavioral therapy was as effective as treating patients with naltrexone alone. But combining the two treatments appeared to offer no treatment advantage over either approach delivered alone.
  • The patients who got cognitive behavioral therapy alone with no pills had less improvement than those who took placebo pills.

Drug and alcohol treatment expert Henry R. Kranzler, MD, of the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, says the finding points to a strong placebo effect in the treatment of alcohol dependence.

Kranzler tells WebMD that the study also sends a clear message that naltrexone is the first-line drug therapy for the treatment of alcohol dependence.

"Right now, if physicians are prescribing drugs they are probably prescribing SSRI antidepressants," he says. "They should be prescribing naltrexone."

The study also sends the message that there is more than one effective treatment approach for alcohol dependence.

While studies show that intensive group treatment programs like Alcoholics Anonymous can be very effective, many people struggling with alcoholismalcoholism want little to do with group therapy, he says.

"Alcohol-dependent people are very heterogeneous with regard to how they view their drinking and how they would like to approach treatment," he says. "But it is clear that if they are motivated to get help they can get better."

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