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Medications for Treating Alcoholism are Rarely Prescribed, Study Reports

Update Date: May 14, 2014 09:22 AM EDT

One of the most common treatments for alcoholism is rehabilitation via some kind of program, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Since these programs are widely popular, people often forget that there are approved medications that treat alcoholism. In a new study, researchers examined the use of these medications, naltrexone and acamprosate, and found that even thought they were approved over a decade ago, doctors rarely prescribed them.

"This is an important paper," said Dr. George Koob, the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism who was not involved in the study. "There are effective medications for the treatment of alcoholism, and it would be great if the world would use them."

Based on the background information provided by the press release, less than one-third of alcoholics receive any kinds of treatment and less than 10 percent get prescribed medications For this study, the researchers, mostly from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, reviewed data available on nearly 23,000 people taken from 122 randomized trials. The trials had tested the use of mediations in treating alcoholism. The team had focused on the "number needed to treat," which is the number of pills an alcoholic would need to take to recover. Out of all the approved drugs for alcoholism, two, naltrexone and acamprosate, were found to be highly effective.

"There are many studies that have tried to show whether certain medications can help with alcohol use disorders, but it is a lot of information to digest and many providers do not know what works or doesn't work," said Dr. Daniel E. Jonas, the lead author of the new study and an associate professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina. "When you synthesize all the evidence, it shows pretty clearly that some medications do work."

The researchers discovered that for naltrexone, each patient would need to take 20 pills in order to stop drinking. The number needed to treat the disorder fell to 12 for acamprosate. The researchers cautioned that the trials all examined the effects of taking the drugs in combination with therapy or counseling on alcoholism. The effects of taking the drugs alone are unknown.

"These drugs are really underused quite a bit, and our findings show that they can help thousands and thousands of people," said Dr. Jonas reported by the New York Times. "They're not blockbuster. They're not going to work for everybody. But they can make a difference for a lot of people."

There were some side effects from the medications. People reported experiencing nausea, dizziness and headaches. The study was published in JAMA.

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