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Alcohol Use Disorder Treatments and Why They Are Effective

Editor Dan Schimmel, LCSW, CAP
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In medicine, treating any disorder can’t be successful without a significant amount of research that supports treatment methods. This is true for both medication and other types of treatment, especially for disorders such as alcohol use disorder.

However, this disorder is quite particular because the majority of cases go untreated — and we’re sometimes not sure why specific treatments work as well as they do. For people suffering from alcohol use disorder, it’s imperative that medicine finds the most effective type of treatment. 

Only more knowledge will guarantee that those who abuse alcohol can get the help they need. For that reason, it’s encouraging to note that researchers are beginning to study alcohol use disorder treatments in more detail. Let’s have a closer look at what alcohol use disorder is and how it’s treated:

What Is Alcohol Use Disorder

People tend to equate alcohol use disorder with alcoholism. However, alcoholism is simply one of the stages to which alcohol use disorder can escalate. Generally, any problems arising from the use of alcohol, including a lack of control when drinking, falls under alcohol use disorder.

Being aware of the full scope of alcohol use disorder is important in a society where drinking isn’t so frowned upon anymore. If your drinking patterns put your health or safety at risk, it doesn’t matter how frequently or infrequently you drink — you’re still at risk from developing alcohol use disorder. You probably already have it if your pattern of drinking causes problems in your daily life.

Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder

Fortunately, alcohol use disorder can be mild. The number of symptoms you experience will determine the severity of the problem. Alcohol use disorder symptoms include:

  • Unsuccessful attempts of cutting down on the amount of alcohol you consume;
  • Struggling or being unable to limit the amount of alcohol you consume;
  • Feeling strong urges or cravings to consume alcohol;
  • Continuing to drink even though you’re aware that it’s impacting your health and your daily life negatively;
  • Spending a lot of time on alcohol consumption or recovering from it;
  • Consuming alcohol in unsafe situations like driving;
  • Not being able to meet work or school deadlines or causing family problems because of repeated alcohol consumption;
  • Developing an alcohol tolerance or experiencing withdrawal symptoms (that you might be drinking to avoid in the first place).

Causes and Risk Factors

Alcohol use disorder could start at any age, but it is usually observed to begin in the 20s or 30s. Causes and risk factors for developing alcohol use disorder can vary. There are generally genetic, social, environmental, and psychological factors at play. Some people are more susceptible to start abusing alcohol, and on some, it might have a stronger impact than others.

Steady drinking over time and starting at an early age are the most common risk factors. However, family history and history of trauma also play a significant role in an individual’s development of alcohol abuse. Individuals with depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems also often develop alcohol use disorder.

Complications

Alcohol abuse can cause severe complications over time and even lead to the development of lethal conditions. However, alcohol use disorder can also cause severe social consequences, as individuals can get into trouble with the law or in their family life. Additionally, alcohol abuse can cause accidents that result in injury or death, if an individual engages in a risky activity like driving while intoxicated.

Alcohol is especially dangerous in combination with medications that depress the central nervous system, as alcohol has the same effect. The main problem with alcohol use disorder is that it increases the risk of these complications, which can have a severe impact on an individual’s life.

Treatments

There are different treatment techniques for alcohol use disorder. The most well-known ones are programs of Alcoholics Anonymous and the Minnesota Model, which is a mutual-help group model of care. What many alcohol abusers aren’t aware of is that there are also behavioral treatments available, as well as medication such as disulfiram, oral naltrexone, and acamprosate.

Behavioral therapies with medication have so far proved to be the most effective. There is a lot of fine-tuning to be done, but the main building blocks of these treatment programs are changing the behavior and expectations related to alcohol, teamed with developing accountability for sticking with the medication.

Why Are These Treatments Effective?

However, despite having developed different treatment options, researchers still aren’t sure what it is that makes them effective. Even though we may know that a particular method works reasonably well, there are gaps in our knowledge of alcohol use disorder. 

Unfortunately, this state of affairs keeps us rooted in place when it comes to improving treatment options for alcohol use disorder. That’s why we’re going to be seeing more studies delving into this issue to determine how to make the most effective treatments for every individual. 

New Study Determining Factors of Behavior Change

The study “Neurocognitive and Neurobehavioral Mechanisms of Change following Psychological Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder” aims to find out how specific regions of the brain that control alcohol reactivity change after AUD treatment. 

The researchers will provide two different types of treatment to individuals with AUD: mindfulness-based treatment and cognitive behavior therapy, then compare the results. After the study is complete, we should have better insight into how the brain reacts to different types of treatments, and whether some are more effective than others.

Key Takeaways

Alcohol use disorder is a serious one, affecting millions of people in the U.S. only. It can vary in severity, but it’s important that the individual seeks treatment on time. Otherwise, it can escalate and cause all kinds of medical and social consequences.

There are different types of effective treatment, but we need to research them better to identify why and how they work. Only that will ensure that we can provide better treatment to individuals afflicted with alcohol use disorder in the future.


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