Though effective, medications for alcoholism widely underused by patients

Though two types of medications have been shown to be effective for treating alcohol use disorders (AUD), few doctors are prescribing these drugs for patients, new research suggests.

In an analysis of 122 studies, researchers from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, focused on the effects of two medications called naltrexone and acamprosate, which have been approved to treat alcoholism for over a decade. Both drugs help to suppress alcohol cravings by normalizing brain activity that has been disrupted through heavy alcohol use.

To evaluate the benefit of these medications, the researchers presented their results in a measure known as the “number needed to treat” (NNT) – the average number of people who need to take the pills in order for one person to see medical benefits.  For acamprosate, 12 people needed to be treated so that one person didn’t return to drinking, as opposed to 20 patients for naltrexone.

Comparatively, the NNT for the cholesterol lowering statins can range up to 100 for the prevention of a coronary event.

Additionally, the authors found that acamprosate and naltrexone were much more effective at treating AUD than the more widely known medication disulfiram, which has been in use since the 1950s.  Disulfiram works by causing unpleasant effects when even a small amount of alcohol is consumed, therefore many patients stop taking it.

According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately 18 million people suffer from an AUD in the United States. Yet, less than 10 percent of patients with this condition receive medications to help reduce their alcohol consumption.  The researchers hope their study will persuade more physicians to view alcoholism as a chronic illness that can sometimes be treated with medication.

“These drugs are really underused quite a bit, and our findings show that they can help thousands and thousands of people,” Dr. Daniel E. Jonas, the lead author of the new study and an associate professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina, told the New York Times. “They’re not blockbuster. They’re not going to work for everybody. But they can make a difference for a lot of people.”