Washington: An updated review of studies has confirmed that a little-used medication can help treat alcoholism.
Twelve-step programs have been the mainstay for helping alcoholics to quit drinking, but a significant number of people who try these programs do not find them helpful or suffer relapses.
The Cochrane review finds that the medication naltrexone — brand names are Depade and ReVia — when combined with counseling or interventions like Alcoholics Anonymous, can help cut the risk of heavy drinking in patients who are dependent on alcohol.
Naltrexone works by blocking the pleasurable feelings, or “high,” a person gets from drinking alcohol, thereby reducing motivation to drink.
Naltrexone can be taken daily as a pill and is available as a long-acting injection.
Systematic reviews draw evidence-based conclusions about medical practice after considering both the content and quality of existing medical trials on a topic.
Michael Soyka, senior author of the review and colleagues examined the results of 50 previously published high-quality studies on naltrexone and alcohol dependence. Overall, the studies enrolled nearly 7,800 patients diagnosed with alcohol dependence.
Of these, about 4,200 patients took naltrexone or a similar drug called nalmefene. The rest of the patients took a placebo or had some other type of treatment. Treatment with naltrexone ranged from four weeks to a year, with most patients receiving about 12 weeks of treatment. Most patients also received counseling.
Researchers found that patients who received naltrexone were 17 percent less likely to return to heavy drinking than were patients who received a placebo treatment.
“That would mean that naltrexone can be expected to prevent heavy drinking in one out of eight patients who would otherwise have returned to a heavy drinking pattern,” Soyka said.
Naltrexone also increased the number of people who were able to stay abstinent by 4 percent.
While at first glance that might not seem like a miracle cure for alcoholism, Soyka said that the effectiveness of naltrexone is on par with medications used for other psychiatric conditions.
“Naltrexone is moderately effective in reducing alcohol intake. It’s about as effective as antidepressants in depressive disorders,” he said.
“From a safety point of view, there are few safety concerns. Nausea is the most frequent side effect.”
The Cochrane Collaboration, an international organization that evaluates medical research, published the review.