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Alcoholism: Getting the Facts (page 3)

— National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
Updated on Feb 18, 2011

Can Alcoholism Be Cured?

Although alcoholism can be treated, a cure is not yet available. In other words, even if an alcoholic has been sober for a long time and has regained health, he or she remains susceptible to relapse and must continue to avoid all alcoholic beverages. "Cutting down" on drinking doesn't work; cutting out alcohol is necessary for a successful recovery.

However, even individuals who are determined to stay sober may suffer one or several "slips," or relapses, before achieving long-term sobriety. Relapses are very common and do not mean that a person has failed or cannot recover from alcoholism. Keep in mind, too, that every day that a recovering alcoholic has stayed sober prior to a relapse is extremely valuable time, both to the individual and to his or her family. If a relapse occurs, it is very important to try to stop drinking once again and to get whatever additional support you need to abstain from drinking.

If your health care provider determines that you are not alcohol dependent but are nonetheless involved in a pattern of alcohol abuse, he or she can help you to:

  • Examine the benefits of stopping an unhealthy drinking pattern.
  • Set a drinking goal for yourself. Some people choose to abstain from alcohol. Others prefer to limit the amount they drink.
  • Examine the situations that trigger your unhealthy drinking patterns, and develop new ways of handling those situations so that you can maintain your drinking goal.

Some individuals who have stopped drinking after experiencing alcohol-related problems choose to attend AA meetings for information and support, even though they have not been diagnosed as alcoholic.

New Directions

With NIAAA's support, scientists at medical centers and universities throughout the country are studying alcoholism. The goal of this research is to develop better ways of treating and preventing alcohol problems. Today, NIAAA funds approximately 90 percent of all alcoholism research in the United States. Some of the more exciting investigations focus on the causes, consequences, treatment, and prevention of alcoholism:

  • Genetics: Alcoholism is a complex disease. Therefore, there are likely to be many genes involved in increasing a person's risk for alcoholism. Scientists are searching for these genes, and have found areas on chromosomes where they are probably located. Powerful new techniques may permit researchers to identify and measure the specific contribution of each gene to the complex behaviors associated with heavy drinking. This research will provide the basis for new medications to treat alcohol-related problems.
  • Treatment: NIAAA-supported researchers have made considerable progress in evaluating commonly used therapies and in developing new types of therapies to treat alcohol-related problems. One large-scale study sponsored by NIAAA found that each of three commonly used behavioral treatments for alcohol abuse and alcoholism-motivation enhancement therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and 12-step facilitation therapy-significantly reduced drinking in the year following treatment. This study also found that approximately one-third of the study participants who were followed up either were still abstinent or were drinking without serious problems 3 years after the study ended. Other therapies that have been evaluated and found effective in reducing alcohol problems include brief intervention for alcohol abusers (individuals who are not dependent on alcohol) and behavioral marital therapy for married alcohol-dependent individuals.
  • Medications development: NIAAA has made developing medications to treat alcoholism a high priority. We believe that a range of new medications will be developed based on the results of genetic and neuroscience research. In fact, neuroscience research has already led to studies of one medication-naltrexone (ReViaT)-as an anticraving medication. NIAAA-supported researchers found that this drug, in combination with behavioral therapy, was effective in treating alcoholism. Naltrexone, which targets the brain's reward circuits, is the first medication approved to help maintain sobriety after detoxification from alcohol since the approval of disulfiram (Antabuse®) in 1949. The use of acamprosate, an anticraving medication that is widely used in Europe, is based on neuroscience research. Researchers believe that acamprosate works on different brain circuits to ease the physical discomfort that occurs when an alcoholic stops drinking. Acamprosate should be approved for use in the United States in the near future, and other medications are being studied as well.
  • Combined medications/behavioral therapies: NIAAA-supported researchers have found that available medications work best with behavioral therapy. Thus, NIAAA has initiated a large-scale clinical trial to determine which of the currently available medications and which behavioral therapies work best together. Naltrexone and acamprosate will each be tested separately with different behavioral therapies. These medications will also be used together to determine if there is some interaction between the two that makes the combination more effective than the use of either one alone.

In addition to these efforts, NIAAA is sponsoring promising research in other vital areas, such as fetal alcohol syndrome, alcohol's effects on the brain and other organs, aspects of drinkers' environments that may contribute to alcohol abuse and alcoholism, strategies to reduce alcohol-related problems, and new treatment techniques. Together, these investigations will help prevent alcohol problems; identify alcohol abuse and alcoholism at earlier stages; and make available new, more effective treatment approaches for individuals and families.

For more information on alcohol abuse and alcoholism, contact the following organizations:

Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc.
1600 Corporate Landing Parkway
Virginia Beach, VA 23454-5617
Phone: (757)563-1600; Fax: (757) 563-1655
Email: WSO@al-anon.org
Internet address: http://www.al-anon.alateen.org

Makes referrals to local Al-Anon groups, which are support groups for spouses and other significant adults in an alcoholic person's life. Also makes referrals to Alateen groups, which offer support to children of alcoholics. Free informational materials and locations of Al-Anon or Alateen meetings worldwide can be obtained by calling the toll-free number (888) 425-2666 from the United States or Canada, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. (e.s.t.).

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) World Services, Inc.
475 Riverside Drive, 11th Floor
New York, NY 10115
Phone: (212) 870-3400; Fax: (212) 870-3003
Email: via AA's Web site
Internet address: http://www.aa.org

Makes referrals to local AA groups and provides informational materials on the AA program. Many cities and towns also have a local AA office listed in the telephone book. All communication should be directed to AA's mailing address: AA World Services, Inc., Grand Central Station, P.O. Box 459, New York, NY 10163.

National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. (NCADD)
20 Exchange Place, Suite 2902
New York, NY 10005
Phone: (212) 269-7797; Fax: (212) 269-7510
Email: national@ncadd.org
HOPE LINE: (800) NCA-CALL (24-hour Affiliate referral)
Internet address: http://www.ncadd.org

Offers educational materials and information on alcoholism. Provides phone numbers of local NCADD Affiliates (who can provide information on local treatment resources) via the above toll-free, 24-hour HOPE LINE.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)
Scientific Communications Branch
6000 Executive Boulevard,Willco Building, Suite 409
Bethesda, MD 20892-7003
Phone: (301) 443-3860; Fax: (301) 480-1726
Email: niaaaweb-r@exchange.nih.gov
Internet address: http://www.niaaa.nih.gov

Makes available free informational materials on all aspects of alcoholism, including the effects of drinking during pregnancy, alcohol use and the elderly, and help for cutting down on drinking.

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