Study Finds Naltrexone Effective for Alcohol Relapse Prevention

Posted on December 22nd, 2010

An estimated 5 percent of the population suffers from alcohol addiction. Although 12-step programs and inpatient addiction treatment are very helpful for some people, others may need some extra help. A new study has found that the medication naltrexone, when combined with counseling or 12-step programs, can help reduce the motivation to drink among heavy drinkers.

Naltrexone works by blocking the pleasurable feelings one usually gets from drinking alcohol. It can be taken daily in pill form or as a long-acting injection. Cochrane Collaboration, an organization that evaluates medical research, reviewed the drug using evidence-based conclusions after looking about both the content and quality of existing medical trials on the topic.

Michael Soyka, M.D., senior author of the review who is associated with the psychiatric hospital at the University of Munich (along with lead author Suanne Roesner), said that hundreds of drugs have been examined for alcohol relapse prevention, and that all others have basically failed. He added that from a clinical standpoint, there are very few pharmacological options for treating alcoholism, so it is imperative to look at promising options such as naltrexone. Lead author

The researchers looked at 50 previously published studies on the effectiveness of naltraxone on alcohol dependence, which included about 7,800 alcohol-dependent patients. Of these, about 4,200 took naltrexone or a similar drug called nalmefene. The remaining patients were either given a placebo or another type of treatment. Those who took naltrexone were treated from four weeks to a year, with most patients being treated for 12 weeks. Most patients also received counseling.

The study found that the patients who were given naltrexone were 17 percent less likely to relapse than those who were given the placebo. Soyka said this means that naltrexone would prevent heavy drinking in one out of eight patients who would have otherwise relapsed.

Soyka said that naltrexone was found to be moderately effective in reducing drinking, and that it is about as effective as antidepressants are for people suffering from depression.

Carlton Erickson, Ph.D., director of the Addiction Science Research and Education Center at the University of Texas in Austin, who was not associated with the study, said that the drug could help alcohol-dependent people become abstinent. Erickson said that once a person starts to cut down on their drinking, they are more likely to become abstinent with continued treatment and 12-step programs.

Erickson added that some addiction treatment specialists believe that taking medication might lead to patients not getting the counseling or psychological interventions they need, which could be why naltrexone isn’t widely used in the United States, despite its possible benefits in treating alcohol addiction. He noted that naltrexone has been approved by the FDA only in combination with therapy such as 12-step programs.

Source: Science Daily, Popping a Pill Can Help Some Alcoholics Curb Drinking, December 17, 2010

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