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Outpatient Alcohol Treatment: 4 Vital Questions, Answered

By Manjari Bansal, Kyle Kirkland
If you struggle with alcohol use disorder, you can seek treatment without needing to live in an unfamiliar clinic. Here’s what you need to know about outpatient alcohol treatment.

Over 14 million people in the United States have alcohol use disorder, according to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. While the severity of your addiction will determine whether an inpatient stint is required, there are are a number of outpatient options for treating alcohol use disorder. Some patients enroll in one of these forms of treatment after having stayed in an inpatient facility for the preliminary leg of their treatment. For other patients, outpatient options may be appropriate as their first intervention. Here’s what you need to know about outpatient alcohol treatment.

1. Is there such a thing as outpatient alcohol rehab?

Yes, outpatient rehab is a form of alcohol rehabilitation that allows patients to receive treatment and still live at home instead of living in a hospital or clinic, according to American Addiction Centers. This allows you to attend treatment and maintain a healthy connection to your support systems, such as your friends and family. 

2. What is the first step in the treatment process for addiction?

“When an individual enters treatment for addiction they will first be assessed to determine if a medical detoxification is necessary,” Aaron Sternlicht, LMHC, CASAC, a therapist and co-founder of Family Addiction Specialist in New York, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

“Depending on the severity of the individual’s drug or alcohol use with respect to factors such as length of use, frequency of use, and quantity of use they may need a medical detox in order to mitigate withdrawal symptoms which are often unpleasant, and in some cases can lead to severe mental and physical health issues such as seizures and can be lethal. Medical detox generally lasts for up to 7-days and primarily entails the use of medication while monitoring vitals,” Sternlicht explains.

“When someone enters a detox program they will be routinely assessed for physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms,” Rahul Gupta, MD, Double Board-Certified Medical Director at Buckhead Behavioral Health and Tampa Recovery, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

“Healthcare professionals often use medication to treat any uncomfortable or life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. In addition, healthcare professionals will routinely monitor the person's vitals to ensure that there are no complications during the detox process,” Gupta says. 

“Beyond detox, an individual needs to be assessed to determine if they are appropriate for outpatient treatment or if they first must undergo inpatient treatment,” Sternlicht says. “This will depend on factors such as the history of their drug or alcohol use, their history of treatment and relapse if there is any, and their current living environment among other factors.”

“In both inpatient and outpatient treatment, individuals undergo a variety of treatments often including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, medically assisted treatment, family therapy, and relapse prevention,” Sternlicht adds.

3. Who offers intensive outpatient treatment for alcohol and other drug abuse?

“More than ever, there are a variety of outpatient options for people seeking help, many of which accept insurance,” Samson Motavassel, Program Manager and Therapist at CAST Centers, tells WebMD Connect to Care. 

“The majority of these can be found through a simple online search or by contacting your insurance provider directly,” Motavassel says. “To find accessible and quality treatment options for alcohol use disorder, it may be helpful to do some research and compare options.” 

Options for outpatient treatment for alcohol use disorder are:

  • Behavioral therapies focused on understanding the triggers and behaviors that can make you want to drink, as well as techniques to prevent drinking.
  • Medication that can help you manage withdrawal symptoms or make you feel ill if you drink.
  • Support groups where you share your journey through recovery with others going through the same process.

4. What should I expect from outpatient alcohol rehab?

There is no one treatment plan for everyone--your therapist/doctor will evaluate the options and decide what would be best for you.

“A large number of intensive outpatient treatment providers offer group therapy, individual therapy, family therapy, case management, and aftercare services focused on helping individuals overcome alcohol use disorder,” Motavassel says.

The first step in seeking treatment is understanding if you have a problem. Signs of alcohol use disorder include drinking regardless of consequences (personal or professional), failing to stop drinking even if you try, and experiencing withdrawal symptoms like sleep problems or nausea when you are not drinking. If you think you may have this disorder or your alcohol use is disrupting your life and well-being, it's worth it to see a professional physician, who can make a diagnosis. 

5. What techniques are used to treat addiction?

“The focus of outpatient alcohol treatment is to combat the triggers and recognize the effects of alcohol abuse,” Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, Neuropsychologist and the Director of Comprehend the Mind, tells WebMD Connect to Care. “Outpatient alcohol treatment includes day treatment, intensive outpatient, and continuing care groups. Day treatment is the most intensive treatment requiring an outpatient to meet a minimum of 5 days a week and participate in assigned activities. These activities can include group therapy, counseling, and medication detox.” 

“Intensive outpatient programs provide flexibility and allow patients to have more freedom. Continuing care groups create a safe space for venting and discussing the recovery process with a support group and therapist. Patients may prefer this program if they have a robust support system at home but still want professional treatment as a safety net,” Hafeez explains.  

Gupta tells WebMD Connect to Care that there are several types of techniques that can be used in outpatient alcohol treatment. The most common techniques include the following

  • Group Therapy: Group Therapy is one of the most common techniques used in alcohol treatment. It involves two or more individuals at the same time facilitated by an addiction professional. Group therapy not only allows you to benefit from interactions with the therapist but other group members who may be struggling with the same things.
  • Individual Therapy: Individual therapy allows for a therapist and client to get to the root of the client's history and emotions surrounding their alcohol use disorder.
  • Family Therapy: Alcohol use disorder doesn't just affect the identified person struggling. Family Therapy helps individuals and family members work through the dysfunctional patterns that come along with alcoholism. Identifying and working through issues that may have caused resentment and misunderstandings can help restore balance in the family dynamic.

6. Typically, how long does outpatient alcohol treatment last?

The length of your treatment will depend on factors such as:

  • The severity of your alcohol misuse
  • The presence of other physical or mental disorders
  • Your history of relapse

If your alcohol misuse is severe, you may need to detox before beginning any treatment. Detox programs are available as part of treatment to ensure you are put in the best position to succeed in your rehabilitation.

“The duration of treatment often depends on an individual’s severity of the problem and progress in treatment,” Motavassel says. “Outpatient treatment for alcohol use disorder is varied from person to person and can last anywhere from 1 month to a year.” 

7. What is considered the most effective treatment for alcohol use disorder?

Gupta tells WebMD Connect to Care that the following can be considered the most effective treatments for alcohol use disorder:

  • Medication-Assisted Treatment: Medication-Assisted Treatment is a common outpatient technique that utilizes medication combined with behavioral therapy to prevent the use and relapse of alcohol addiction.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT is a widely preferred treatment for alcohol use disorder. CBT combines cognition and behavior to help individuals recognize distorted patterns and thoughts which influence behavior leading to alcohol use.
  • Holistic Therapy: Using a mind, body, spirit approach, holistic therapies such as yoga, meditation, mindfulness, acupuncture, and others can be extremely effective when combined with Psychotherapy, CBT, 12-Step programming, and more. For most individuals, alcohol use disorder is more than just their physical craving for alcohol. There are factors in a person's environment that play a part in addiction. Holistic Therapy helps restore balance in a mind-body approach.
  • Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy can be considered what some call "talk therapy," and having a conversation. In Psychotherapy for alcohol use disorder, the therapist may help a patient better understand psychological cravings and triggers that can lead to relapse. Psychotherapy can also help individuals stay motivated to achieve their goals and can last for up to months and years.
  • 12-Step Facilitation12-step programs are public communities where individuals openly discuss struggles with substance use. The most famous 12-step group is Alcoholics Anonymous.12-step groups have proven to be extremely effective in helping people achieve sobriety in the long term.

8. What rehab has the highest success rate?

“The highest level of success for alcohol rehab does not come from a single level of care or program, but from a full continuum of care,” Gupta says. “In a continuum of care model, patients gradually "step down," to less intensive levels of care as they recover, providing structure and accountability as they transition back to the "real world”.”

Gupta says “In an ideal continuum of care, the structure would have an array of services and options to help meet the complex needs of those struggling with alcohol use disorder. Important levels on the continuum of care typically include:

  • Detox: Detox is the highest level of care and provides round-the-clock services and medical attention for those withdrawing from alcohol use disorder
  • Residential or Inpatient Care: Residential or Inpatient facilities still offer round-the-clock care from trained staff and last for 28 days or longer. However, [these programs] may be less restricted than a detox unit due to clients typically being medically stable and [finished with] the withdrawal process.
  • Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHP): PHPs typically last five days a week and are considered an "outpatient" level of care. During this time individuals can either live at a sober living home or commute back and forth from home to a clinical setting where PHP takes place.
  • Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP): IOPs last a minimum of three days per week and afford individuals the opportunity to work full-time or go back to school while still attending treatment.
  • Outpatient (OP): Outpatient care is the lowest level of care. Standard outpatient therapy can consist of a minimum of an hour-long therapy session per week or one session per month depending on the provider.”

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