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These Prescription Drugs Can Help Treat Alcohol Use Disorder

January 10, 2019

Long before the opioid overdose epidemic hit the news, alcohol-related deaths were taking nearly 90,000 American lives a year.

Despite being the third-leading cause of preventable death in the United States – after tobacco and obesity – alcohol use is often overlooked as an opportunity for life-changing intervention. Decreasing or stopping alcohol intake can have significant benefits for physical and psychological health and, in some cases, even be life-saving.

Dr. J. Craig Allen, medical director of Rushford, said people who drink regularly and heavily may find it challenging when they try to stop.

“If you are physically dependent on alcohol, withdrawal can include stomach cramps, vomiting, sweating, tremors, hypertension, hallucinations and, for some, can be life-threatening,” he said. “If you experience physical or psychological symptoms when cutting down on alcohol, a medical assessment is essential. Some people need medically-monitored assistance and specific withdrawal medications to get through the initial period safely.”

When combined with counseling and behavioral therapies, Dr. Allen said there is scientific evidence supporting the use of pharmacologic intervention to treat alcohol use disorders (AUDs). Millions of Americans suffer from an AUD and high-risk binge drinking that can lead to health-related issues as well as financial and personal problems.

Although they are beneficial, AUD medications are grossly underused, he said. To help increase their use, the American Psychiatric Association in 2018 issued guidelines for the pharmacologic treatment of AUD. The Medication Assisted Treatment Close to Home (MATCH) program at Hartford HealthCare includes services for people with AUD and drug dependency.

The patient-centric approach offers evidence-based medications including those the American Psychiatric Association identified, such as:

  • Naltrexone (ReVia or Depade) is given in pill form. Naltrexone extended release (VIVITROL) is given in monthly injections.
  • Acamprostate Calcium (Campral).
  • Disulfiram (Antabuse).
  • Gabapentin.
  • Topiramate.

Other medications that may have less evidence but have been effective for some populations are also considered.

“Our goal is to make patients as comfortable as possible so they can use the strategies and therapies that will be long-term tools in their recovery,” Dr. Allen said.

The National Institutes of Health defines high-risk drinking as more than four drinks a day or more than 14 per week for men and three drinks a day or seven per week for women. High-risk drinkers are at enhanced risk for having or developing an AUD and/or the physical results of alcohol exposure like hypertension, liver disease, gastrointestinal issues and cancers.

“It can be very difficult to stop drinking but the help many patients find through the MATCH program gives them the added assistance they may need to achieve sobriety,” Dr. Allen said.

For more information on how the Hartford HealthCare MATCH program can help people stop drinking, click here.