Science and Health

Underused Drugs Effective In Treating Alcoholism, Study Says

Researchers have found two medications — acamprosate and oral naltrexone — are more effective than traditionally used disulfiram in treating AUDs.

Underused Drugs Effective In Treating Alcoholism, Study Says
Flickr / Kirti Poddar

Researchers say there are several medications that can help alcoholics quit their drinking. Thing is, they're rarely prescribed. 

According to the National Institutes of Health, about 18 million Americans suffer from alcohol use disorders. AUDs are "medical conditions that doctors can diagnose when a patient's drinking causes distress or harm. ... Classified as either alcohol dependence—perhaps better known as alcoholism—or alcohol abuse." (Flickr / pmorgan, Kirti Poddar​)

Researchers led by Daniel Jonas of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reviewed and analyzed over 100 clinical trials testing the two drugs. (Via Flickr / nvinacco)

​The group presented its results using a measure called "number needed to treat," or NNT, which measures the average number of patients treated before one benefits. According to the press release, acamprosate's NNT was 12, and oral naltrexone's was 20. (Via Journal of the American Medical Association)

For comparison, widely used cholesterol drug Lipitor has an NNT of 100, according to this report by Businessweek

The study's lead researcher tells Bloomberg less than 10 percent of patients with AUDs get medication for them. He says that's due, in part, to doubt surrounding the effectiveness of the drugs.

"Historically, that's because of the uncertainty over whether they work. People with alcohol use disorders have serious problems. They need help and they are often not getting help. One piece of the treatment is these medicines." (Via Bloomberg)

The study found that a commonly used drug in alcohol abuse prevention — disulfiram — did not appear to help patients with alcohol use disorders. 

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, disulfiram affects the way the body breaks down alcohol, causing uncomfortable symptoms like nausea, headache and chest pain.

Acamprosate and naltrexone work much differently. Acamprosate appears to return the brain to normal functioning after it has been altered by alcohol abuse, and naltrexone decreases the craving for alcohol.

The group hopes the research will help those suffering from AUDs gain access to helpful medications. "By identifying 4 effective medications for AUD ... the authors highlight treatment options for a common medical condition for which patient-centered care is not currently the norm." (Via Medical Daily)