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Prescribed Meds Still Best Treatment for Alcoholism

Study comparing drug, behavioral therapies found medications cut withdrawal, urge to drink

FRIDAY, June 20 (HealthDay News) -- Sticking to a regimen of prescribed medications is the most effective way to reduce withdrawal symptoms and urges to drink alcohol in those being treated for alcohol dependence, according to a U.S. study.

The study compared two medications (naltrexone and acamprosate) used in combination with two behavioral treatments -- low-intensity medical management (MM) and moderately intensive combined behavioral intervention (CBI).

The researchers analyzed data from 846 males and 380 females who took part in the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism's Combine study, a large-scale, multi-site, combined medication and behavioral treatment study.

The participants were randomly assigned to one of eight different combination treatments involving naltrexone, acamprosate, a placebo, MM, and CBI. After 16 weeks of treatment, the patients' primary outcomes -- including percent days abstinent and time to first heavy drinking -- were compared.

"First, high medication adherents fared better than low medication adherents across all combinations of behavioral and pharmacological treatment conditions," Allen Zweben, associate dean for academic affairs and research in Columbia University's school of social work, said in a prepared statement.

"Second, CBI -- a specialty alcohol treatment -- surprisingly had a beneficial impact on nonadherents receiving the placebo. This raises the issue of whether or not CBI may serve as a cushion or have a protective function for these patients," said Zweben, the corresponding author for the study.

"Conversely, CBI did not provide similar benefits for naltrexone-treated patients; their relapse rates appeared to be more a function of inadequate exposure to naltrexone and less influenced by CBI," he added.

Overall, specialized CBI did not perform better than the more primary-care MM.

"Both of these behavioral treatments performed equally as well with regard to treatment adherence and medication adherence rates," Zweben said.

The findings show that combing MM and naltrexone could benefit a large percentage of alcohol-dependent patients.

"Alcohol-dependent patients could be managed in nonspecialized or general health care settings, which, in turn, could broaden the treatment options for individuals diagnosed as alcohol-dependent," Zweben said. "We will need to adapt these findings to 'real world' medical settings and follow the results."

The study was released online by the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research and was to be published in the September print issue.

More information

The American Psychological Association has more about alcohol use disorders and treatment.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, news release, June 17, 2008

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