How Do Alcohol Withdrawal Medications Work?

Published: 03/2/2015 | Author:

In spite of its ranking as the third leading lifestyle-related cause of death, alcohol abuse continues to flourish affecting people of all ages, backgrounds and socioeconomic levels. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol use disorders affect an estimated 18 million Americans within any given year. People struggling with full-blown alcoholism face a whole other set of challenges in terms of the widespread physical and psychological damage left behind by alcohol’s effects. Alcohol withdrawal medications are specifically formulated to help restore normal physical and psychological functioning. In the process, people working through the recovery process can start to feel normal again.

Much like the effects of chronic drug use, alcohol eats away at vital brain structures, which inevitably diminishes the brain’s functional capacity. Until these structures heal, a person will likely have a difficult time trying to maintain sobriety let alone reaping any real benefits from rehab treatment. Alcohol withdrawal medications help this healing process along.

As alcohol rehab treatment has seen a long history of research and real-world application, rehab programs have several different types of alcohol withdrawal medications from which to choose. Alcohol withdrawal medications differ in how each one affects brain function and their overall intended effects within the treatment process.

For many people in recovery, alcohol withdrawal medications have become the only viable option for helping them maintain sobriety on a long-term basis. Ideally, alcohol withdrawal medications should be administered alongside behavioral treatment interventions to bring about the best recovery outcomes.

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Alcohol’s Effects

Someone who drinks alcohol on a regular or frequent basis will start to experience the cumulative effects of alcohol on his or her health and well-being. Continued alcohol use eventually takes a person through the stages of alcohol abuse, which include –

  • Drinking increasingly larger amounts over time
  • Symptoms of physical dependence
  • Inability to control or limit intake amounts
  • Increasing cravings for more alcohol

These stages evolve out of the damaging effects of alcohol on brain and body functions. With each drink, alcohol targets the brain’s glutamate-producing cells. Glutamate secretions increase electrical activity in the brain. Alcohol decreases the amount of glutamate secreted, which results in a decrease of brain electrical activity.

These effects compromise many of the body’s major systems, some of which include –

  • Metabolism
  • Cognitive functions
  • Motor coordination
  • The limbic system which regulates emotions
  • Pain perception

Alcohol withdrawal medications work to restore normal brain chemical functions.

Severe Withdrawal Effects

People with a long history of drinking can expect to experience some fairly uncomfortable withdrawal effects when detoxing. Withdrawal effects typically take the form of –

  • Headaches
  • Sleep problems
  • Tremors in the extremities
  • Fatigue
  • Severe depression
  • Anxiety episodes
  • Sweating

In general, the longer a person’s alcohol history the more severe withdrawal effects will be, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Alcohol withdrawal medications work well at providing relief from uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. For someone coming off a long-time drinking problem, alcohol withdrawal medications can mean the difference between a successful detox recovery and relapsing.

Alcohol Withdrawal Medications

Alcohol Withdrawal Medications

Alcohol withdrawal medications can help you feel normal again.

Once a person enters detox, he or she can expect to experience alcohol withdrawal at its worse. The passing withdrawal episodes experienced during the course of drinking will likely pale in comparison to the degree of withdrawal that comes with detox.

Alcohol withdrawal medications provide relief from distressing withdrawal effects. Methadone and acamprosate calcium are the two most commonly used medication therapies. Both drugs work by mimicking alcohol’s effects in the brain. In the process, these medications support damaged brain functions and stabilize chemical processes.

Since alcoholism does carry an especially high relapse rate, certain other alcohol withdrawal medications have been developed to help curb alcohol cravings and prevent relapse. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, drugs commonly used for this purpose include –

  • Vivitrol
  • Naltrexone
  • Antabuse

The Use of Alcohol Withdrawal Medications in Alcohol Rehab

While alcohol withdrawal medications go a long way towards help relieving addiction’s “aftereffects,” alcohol addiction recovery also entails helping drinkers work through the underlying psychological components of addiction. Consequently, these medication therapies are only a part of the overall recovery process.

Alcohol rehab encompasses a wide range of behavioral treatment interventions, each of which addresses different aspects of addiction. Behavioral interventions commonly used include –

  • Regular psychotherapy sessions
  • Group therapy sessions
  • Drug education training
  • Relapse prevention training
  • Family therapy
  • Couples therapy

Ultimately, addiction has more to do with the psychological dependence that develops as a result of chronic alcohol abuse than the body’s physical dependency on alcohol. The stabilizing effects of alcohol withdrawal medications on brain function enable a person to take a more active role in the recovery process.

Benefits of Alcohol Withdrawal Medications

For chronic alcoholics, the benefits of medication therapies enhance most every area of their lives in terms of improving a person’s sense of overall well-being. Combined with ongoing behavioral treatment interventions, medication treatment therapies offer the following benefits –

  • Increased motivation levels
  • Improved health status
  • Ability to function effectively in everyday life
  • Ongoing abstinence from alcohol

The effects of chronic alcohol abuse greatly increase the potential for psychological disorders to develop on top of the addiction problem. When this happens, someone in recovery has to contend with the symptoms associated with psychological distress on top of addiction’s withdrawal effects.

Without some form of medication therapy in place, a person has little to no chance of maintaining sobriety for any length of time. In effect, medication and behavioral treatment therapies have a reinforcing effect when used together, enabling those in recovery to be fully engaged in the treatment process.

Aftercare Treatment Needs

More oftentimes than not, a full recovery from alcohol addiction requires some form of ongoing treatment for a least a year. This means, even after a person completes a drug treatment program, ongoing behavioral treatment will likely be necessary to maintain ongoing sobriety.

Fortunately, alcohol withdrawal medications can be administered as a form of long-term, maintenance treatment, especially for people recovering from a long history of alcohol abuse. Medication therapy coupled with ongoing psychotherapy and support group work provides the types of supports most needed to ensure long-term sobriety.

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