This is the third and final article in Pain.com’s series for Alcohol Awareness Month. The subject of this article is treatment options for people suffering from alcoholism, alcohol abuse and alcohol-related diseases. Treating alcoholism may be a difficult task, because many people enter treatment reluctantly. In addition, it is difficult to treat alcohol-related health problems because a person may not stop drinking even though it is negatively affecting their health. Successful treatment may mean different things for different people, and there are many different approaches to treating alcoholism, including various medical approaches and different types of counseling.
In people whose alcohol use causes health problems, such as liver disease, heart disease and high blood pressure, medical treatment of these secondary conditions may be necessary. Medications may need to be prescribed to control hypertension, which can have a negative effect on the cardiovascular system. Medical intervention to control complications from heart disease or liver disease may also be necessary in advanced cases.
In liver disease, for example, there is no cure for advanced cirrhosis of the liver besides a liver transplant, but in its early stages, treatment of an alcohol problem can stop the damage from progressing to advanced stages. In moderate stages of cirrhosis, medical treatments may be necessary to control certain symptoms of liver problems. For instance, diuretics may be prescribed to try to get rid of excess fluid buildup in the legs or abdomen. Surgery may also be used to drain this excess fluid from the abdomen if it is severe. People with cirrhosis are also more prone to liver cancer, so they will have to be monitored for cancer with ultrasound examinations of the abdomen and blood tests. Patients with cirrhosis need to be watched for bleeding into the abdominal cavity, esophagus and stomach, infections and a condition called hepatic encephalopathy that can result in neurological symptoms due to the liver having a decreased capacity for filtering toxic substances from the blood. If cirrhosis is severe and results in liver failure, a liver transplant may be the only available treatment; however, people with an untreated alcohol abuse problem may have more difficulty getting a liver transplant than a non-drinker.
A person who is admitted to a hospital or other treatment facility who has a physical dependence on alcohol may need to go through a detoxification period. This process can take up to a week. The patient may experience withdrawal symptoms, which may be quite severe in some cases. Medications may be required to prevent the symptoms of delirium tremens.
After the patient has gone through detoxification, they may be given one of a few medications that can discourage drinking. Disulfiram, also called Antabuse, makes a person feel sick if they consume any amount of alcohol. Naltrexone and acamprosate work by changing how the brain reacts when a person who is addicted to alcohol takes a drink. These drugs block feelings of pleasure by blocking endogenous opioid receptors in the brain. They are designed to help stop cravings for alcohol in people with alcohol abuse problems. Naltrexone is available in either a pill or injection form.
A person with alcoholism may receive counseling, either in the form of individual therapy or group therapy. Anyone who has other problems, such as depression, can receive treatment for those problems as well. This counseling and behavior therapy may continue after the patient is discharged from the treatment center. Some patients join support groups after they receive treatment, so that they do not lapse back into old habits. Others that require extra attention may be placed into a residential treatment facility on a temporary basis.
Of the many potentially helpful treatments for alcoholism, a different combination of treatments may work for different people. There is no one single treatment that is a surefire cure, but treatment is often successful and allows people with an alcohol problem to rebuild their lives and start anew.