A need to drink that can be as strong as the need for food or water. Not being able to stop once drinking has begun. Short-term memory loss. Blackouts, where the user appears to others that he or she is awake and fully conscious – but in reality has no sense of time or action.
These are only some of the early physical effects of alcoholism, a chronic disease (in that it lasts a person’s lifetime) that can lead to cirrhosis, liver failure, and ultimately death. Like other diseases, alcoholism usually follows a predictable course. And it has symptoms – such as the physical symptoms cited above. Then there are the damaging effects of alcohol abuse outside the body. Many alcoholics find it difficult to manage their lives, leading to legal problems and relationship problems that can result in the destructive breakup of marriages and families. Unfortunately, such problems often lead to more drinking and even more problems – driving drunk, for example, and the chance of accidentally killing someone.
To compound matters, researchers and treatment professionals have identified a strong link between alcoholism and drug addiction. While the perceived benefits of combining alcohol and drugs may play a big part in the high percentage of people who do so, the addictive effects and harmful consequences of both substances increase when they are used together.
Alcoholism has also attracted much attention as an inherited disease, a disease inherent in family genes. Research shows that there is, indeed, a risk of developing alcoholism in some families and not others. Research studies are underway to determine the actual genes that lead to the risk of alcoholism. But lifestyle is also a key factor, since the activities of friends, the amount of stress in someone’s life, and the availability of alcohol can also play a significant role in determining one’s risk for alcoholism.
But experts caution that risk is not destiny – that even though alcoholism may run in specific families, it doesn’t mean that the child of an alcoholic parent will automatically become an alcoholic. The opposite is true, as well – there are people who become alcoholics even though no one in their family has a drinking problem.
Alcohol abuse differs from alcoholism in that it does not include an extremely strong craving for alcohol, loss of control over drinking, or physical dependence. Alcohol abuse is defined as a pattern of drinking that results in one or more of the following situations within a 12-month period:
Failure to fulfill major work, school, or home responsibilities;
- Drinking in situations that are physically dangerous, such as while driving a car or operating machinery;
- Having recurring alcohol-related legal problems, such as being arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or for physically hurting someone while drunk; and
- Continued drinking despite having ongoing relationship problems that are caused or worsened by the drinking.
- Although alcohol abuse is basically different from alcoholism, many effects of alcohol abuse are also experienced by alcoholics.
What Are the Signs of a Problem?
How can you tell whether you may have a drinking problem? Answering the following four questions can help you find out:
- Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking?
- Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
- Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking?
- Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning (as an “eye opener”) to steady your nerves or get rid of a hangover?
One “yes” answer suggests a possible alcohol problem. If you answered “yes” to more than one question, it is highly likely that a problem exists. In either case, it is important that you see your doctor or other health care provider right away to discuss your answers to these questions. He or she can help you determine whether you have a drinking problem and, if so, recommend the best course of action.
Even if you answered “no” to all of the above questions, if you encounter drinking-related problems with your job, relationships, health, or the law, you should seek professional help. The effects of alcohol abuse can be extremely serious—even fatal—both to you and to others.
The Decision To Get Help
Accepting the fact that help is needed for an alcohol problem may not be easy. But keep in mind that the sooner you get help, the better are your chances for a successful recovery.
Any concerns you may have about discussing drinking-related problems with your health care provider may stem from common misconceptions about alcoholism and alcoholic people. In our society, the myth prevails that an alcohol problem is a sign of moral weakness. As a result, you may feel that to seek help is to admit some type of shameful defect in yourself. In fact, alcoholism is a disease that is no more a sign of weakness than is asthma. Moreover, taking steps to identify a possible drinking problem has an enormous payoff—a chance for a healthier, more rewarding life.
When you visit your health care provider, he or she will ask you a number of questions about your alcohol use to determine whether you are having problems related to your drinking. Try to answer these questions as fully and honestly as you can. You also will be given a physical examination. If your health care provider concludes that you may be dependent on alcohol, he or she may recommend that you see a specialist in treating alcoholism. You should be involved in any referral decisions and have all treatment choices explained to you.
The type of treatment you receive depends on the severity of your alcoholism and the resources that are available in your community. Treatment may include detoxification (the process of safely getting alcohol out of your system); taking doctor-prescribed medications, such as disulfiram (Antabuse®) or naltrexone (ReVia™), to help prevent a return (or relapse) to drinking once drinking has stopped; and individual and/or group counseling. There are promising types of counseling that teach alcoholics to identify situations and feelings that trigger the urge to drink and to find new ways to cope that do not include alcohol use. These treatments are often provided on an outpatient basis.
Because the support of family members is important to the recovery process, many programs also offer brief marital counseling and family therapy as part of the treatment process. Programs may also link individuals with vital community resources, such as legal assistance, job training, childcare, and parenting classes.
Virtually all alcoholism treatment programs also include Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings. AA describes itself as a “worldwide fellowship of men and women who help each other to stay sober.” Although AA is generally recognized as an effective mutual help program for recovering alcoholics, not everyone responds to AA’s style or message, and other recovery approaches are available. Even people who are helped by AA usually find that AA works best in combination with other forms of treatment, including counseling and medical care.
Can Alcoholism Be Cured?
Although alcoholism can be treated, a cure is not yet available. In other words, even if an alcoholic has been sober for a long time and has regained health, he or she remains susceptible to relapse and must continue to avoid all alcoholic beverages. “Cutting down” on drinking doesn’t work; cutting out alcohol is necessary for a successful recovery.
However, even individuals who are determined to stay sober may suffer one or several “slips,” or relapses, before achieving long-term sobriety. Relapses are very common and do not mean that a person has failed or cannot recover from alcoholism. Keep in mind, too, that every day that a recovering alcoholic has stayed sober prior to a relapse is extremely valuable time, both to the individual and to his or her family. If a relapse occurs, it is very important to try to stop drinking once again and to get whatever additional support you need to abstain from drinking.
Help for Alcohol Abuse
If your health care provider determines that you are not alcohol dependent but are nonetheless involved in a pattern of alcohol abuse, he or she can help you to:
• Examine the benefits of stopping an unhealthy drinking pattern.
• Set a drinking goal for yourself. Some people choose to abstain from alcohol. Others prefer to limit the amount they drink.
• Examine the situations that trigger your unhealthy drinking patterns, and develop new ways of handling those situations so that you can maintain your drinking goal.
Some individuals who have stopped drinking after experiencing alcohol-related problems choose to attend AA meetings for information and support, even though they have not been diagnosed as alcoholic.
With NIAAA’s support, scientists at medical centers and universities throughout the country are studying alcoholism. The goal of this research is to develop better ways of treating and preventing alcohol problems. Today, NIAAA funds approximately 90 percent of all alcoholism research in the United States. Some of the more exciting investigations focus on the causes, consequences, treatment, and prevention of alcoholism:
• Genetics: Alcoholism is a complex disease. Therefore, there are likely to be many genes involved in increasing a person’s risk for alcoholism. Scientists are searching for these genes, and have found areas on chromosomes where they are probably located. Powerful new techniques may permit researchers to identify and measure the specific contribution of each gene to the complex behaviors associated with heavy drinking. This research will provide the basis for new medications to treat alcohol-related problems.
• Treatment: NIAAA-supported researchers have made considerable progress in evaluating commonly used therapies and in developing new types of therapies to treat alcohol-related problems. One large-scale study sponsored by NIAAA found that each of three commonly used behavioral treatments for alcohol abuse and alcoholism—motivation enhancement therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and 12-step facilitation therapy—significantly reduced drinking in the year following treatment. This study also found that approximately one-third of the study participants who were followed up either were still abstinent or were drinking without serious problems 3 years after the study ended. Other therapies that have been evaluated and found effective in reducing alcohol problems include brief intervention for alcohol abusers (individuals who are not dependent on alcohol) and behavioral marital therapy for married alcohol-dependent individuals.
• Medications development: NIAAA has made developing medications to treat alcoholism a high priority. We believe that a range of new medications will be developed based on the results of genetic and neuroscience research. In fact, neuroscience research has already led to studies of one medication—naltrexone (ReVia™)—as an anticraving medication. NIAAA-supported researchers found that this drug, in combination with behavioral therapy, was effective in treating alcoholism. Naltrexone, which targets the brain’s reward circuits, is the first medication approved to help maintain sobriety after detoxification from alcohol since the approval of disulfiram (Antabuse®) in 1949. The use of acamprosate, an anticraving medication that is widely used in Europe, is based on neuroscience research. Researchers believe that acamprosate works on different brain circuits to ease the physical discomfort that occurs when an alcoholic stops drinking. Acamprosate should be approved for use in the United States in the near future, and other medications are being studied as well.
• Combined medications/behavioral therapies: NIAAA-supported researchers have found that available medications work best with behavioral therapy. Thus, NIAAA has initiated a large-scale clinical trial to determine which of the currently available medications and which behavioral therapies work best together. Naltrexone and acamprosate will each be tested separately with different behavioral therapies. These medications will also be used together to determine if there is some interaction between the two that makes the combination more effective than the use of either one alone.
In addition to these efforts, NIAAA is sponsoring promising research in other vital areas, such as fetal alcohol syndrome, alcohol’s effects on the brain and other organs, aspects of drinkers’ environments that may contribute to alcohol abuse and alcoholism, strategies to reduce alcohol-related problems, and new treatment techniques. Together, these investigations will help prevent alcohol problems; identify alcohol abuse and alcoholism at earlier stages; and make available new, more effective treatment approaches for individuals and families.
Be especially scrutinizing as you determine the drug rehab program that meets your specific needs.
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