What are treatment options for alcoholism?

Updated: Nov 27, 2018
  • Author: Warren Thompson, MD, FACP; Chief Editor: Glen L Xiong, MD  more...
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Treatment of alcoholism involves the following:

  • Brief physician advice makes a difference.

  • While a trial period of controlled drinking with careful follow-up might be appropriate for a diagnosis of alcohol abuse, this approach increases a physician's professional liability. Complete abstinence is the only treatment for alcohol dependence. Emphasize that the most common error is underestimating the amount of help that will be needed to stop drinking. The differential diagnosis between alcohol abuse and dependence can be a difficult judgment call.

  • Hospitalize patients if they have a history of delirium tremens or if they have significant comorbidity. Consider inpatient treatment if the patient has poor social support, significant psychiatric problems, or a history of relapse after treatment.

  • Strongly recommend AA.

  • Encourage hospitalized patients to call AA from the hospital. AA will send someone to talk to them if the patient makes the contact. Patients need to attend meetings regularly (daily at first) and for a sufficient length of time (usually 2 y or more) because recovery is a difficult and lengthy process.

  • In the beginning of treatment, and perhaps ongoing, patients should remove alcohol from their homes and avoid bars and other establishments where strong pressures to drink may influence successful abstinence.

  • If the patient has an antisocial personality (ie, severe problems with family, peers, school, and police before age 15 y and before the onset of alcohol problems), recovery is less likely. If the patient has primary depression, anxiety disorder, or another potentially contributory disorder (the other disorder must antedate the problems with alcohol or it must be a significant problem during long periods of sobriety), treat this primary problem aggressively.

Strongly encourage family members of patients with alcoholism to contact Al-Anon and Alateen via its Web site (Al-Anon/Alateen) or mailing address (Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters; PO Box 182; Madison Square Garden Station; New York, NY 10159-0182).

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