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Drug eases withdrawal, improves abstinence in alcohol use disorder

Study suggests gabapentin may ease withdrawal symptoms in alcohol use disorder. File Photo by Needpix/Pixabay
Study suggests gabapentin may ease withdrawal symptoms in alcohol use disorder. File Photo by Needpix/Pixabay

March 9 (UPI) -- The prescription drug Gabapentin may help those suffering from withdrawal symptoms during treatment for alcohol addiction, a new study has found.

The study, published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine by researchers in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, shows those treated with the drug reported fewer "heavy drinking days" and higher levels of abstinence than those who received a placebo.

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"This study showed that individuals with alcohol use disorder who also have significant alcohol withdrawal symptoms are likely to do well on gabapentin," study co-author Raymond Anton, an addiction psychiatrist and clinical neuroscientist at MUSC, told UPI. "As such, this provides another inexpensive medication choice -- available in generic form -- for clinicians to consider in the treatment of alcohol use disorder."

Gabapentin has been available as a generic for several years. Perhaps as a result, it is often prescribed for conditions ranging from anxiety to fibromyalgia, as well as other chronic pain conditions.

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The National Institutes of Health estimates that as many as 15 million Americans meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder, or AUD, a chronic, relapsing brain disease in which sufferers experience "compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over alcohol intake and a negative emotional state when not using." The vast majority of those with AUD undergo behavioral health therapy or participate in "12-step" programs like Alcoholic's Anonymous.

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"Right now it is estimated that only 20 percent of individuals who might benefit from reducing, or stopping, drinking actually receive treatment," Anton said. "And of those, only 20 percent receive any medication-assisted treatment. Medications that can be prescribed by specialists or primary care providers can encourage many more people to consider treatment for their AUD. Also, outpatient treatments are more acceptable and affordable than inpatient rehab treatments."

For thee study, Anton and his colleagues enrolled 90 participants with AUD who met the diagnostic criteria for alcohol withdrawal -- with symptoms such as trouble sleeping; hand tremors, or "the shakes;" nausea or vomiting; anxiety; seizures; or hallucinations. They began treatment in the study following three alcohol-free days, with roughly half of them receiving 1,200 milligrams of gabapentin per day.

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At the start of AUD treatment, the average percentage of heavy drinking days among study participants was 83 percent. In addition, each of the participants had, on average, 4.5 symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.

In all, 12 of the 44 participants treated with gabapentin, or 27 percent, had no heavy drinking days, compared to four of the 46, or 9 percent, that received the placebo. In addition, 18 percent of those who received gabapentin had total abstinence, compared to just 4 percent of those in the placebo group.

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"In this study, gabapentin was generally well tolerated and can be used in a range of individuals," Anton said. "Individuals taking antidepressants, blood pressure medications and other common medications participated in the study with minimal ill effects. Those with significant alcohol withdrawal symptoms -- like tremors or shaking, anxiety, nausea, sweating or sleep difficulties -- when they do not drink seem to be especially helped by gabapentin."

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