If you or a loved one is suffering from an alcohol use disorder—commonly referred to as “alcoholism”—you may be wondering: can alcoholism be cured? This is a topic that continues to be of great debate in our society. While many consider alcoholism, or any addiction for that matter, to simply be a lifestyle choice, researchers and addiction specialists classify alcoholism as a chronic brain disease.
What does this mean? By classifying alcoholism as a chronic disease, it means that alcoholism is viewed as a progressive, long-lasting illness where there is no cure. No cure, however, does not mean there is no hope for long-term recovery. Like other chronic diseases, such as diabetes or heart disease, alcoholism and its symptoms can be successfully managed with proper treatment.
Why Can’t Alcoholism Be Cured?
Like with all drugs, long-term alcohol abuse creates changes in the brain’s biochemistry. In an alcoholic, the brain’s pleasure centers, as well as neurotransmitters that affect brain stimulation, are essentially out of whack. Although we can rebalance the brain’s neurotransmitters over time, the neural pathways that were created while engaging in addictive behavior (or, in this case, alcohol abuse) will always be there.
That doesn’t mean that treatment cannot help. In fact, while in recovery, an alcoholic’s brain will create new neural pathways to help them experience pleasure from activities other than drinking. But, just like with any chronic disease, a lack of symptoms does not mean the disease is cured. Without proper treatment and support measures in place, it can become incredibly easy for a recovering alcoholic to relapse.
How to Treat and Manage Alcoholism
If alcoholism cannot be cured, what can be done to manage it? Alcoholism and its symptoms can be successfully managed with effective treatment. It’s important to note, however, that the most effective treatment for alcoholism will vary for each individual. Since every person suffering from alcoholism is coming from different circumstances, it’s crucial to discuss your situation with a recovery advisor at a treatment center or your healthcare provider in order to determine what may be the best course of treatment for you or your loved one.
There are several ways to treat and manage alcoholism, but here are some of the methods that your doctor or a recovery advisor may discuss with you:
For many alcoholics, the first step towards recovery is what is referred to as detoxification or “detox.” During the detox process, the individual stops alcohol consumption completely (unless advised by a doctor), and allows time for the body to rid itself of all alcohol in the system. During the detox period is when many people experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Since some alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening, it’s important to speak with your healthcare provider before you stop drinking. Long-term, heavy alcohol abusers may do best by detoxing under medical supervision.
Inpatient or Outpatient Treatment
After detoxing, many alcoholics will continue treatment in an inpatient or outpatient treatment center. Inpatient treatment facilities allow individuals to reside at the center while recovering, while outpatient facilities allow individuals to live at home. The type of treatment that is best for you may depend on several factors including your needs for care, insurance coverage, and ability to be away from your family and/or place of employment. Regardless of which type of treatment you choose, a reputable treatment center should offer:
- Individual and Family Therapy
- Group Therapy
- Medical Supervision
- 12-Step and/or Non-12-Step Programs
- Case Management
Some treatment programs, such as Nexus, may also offer:
- Nutritional Counseling
- Psycho-Education Groups
- Holistic Therapies
- Community Involvement
- Spiritual Counseling
- Career and Educational Goal Setting
- Continuing Recovery and Aftercare Planning
Although there currently aren’t medications that can cure alcoholism, your doctor may prescribe medications to help with withdrawal symptoms, alcohol cravings, and anxiety. Some medications used in the treatment of alcoholism include:
- Disulfiram: Doesn’t allow the body to process alcohol. Since those who consume alcohol while taking this medication will either feel sick or vomit, it can help deter alcoholics from drinking.
- Acamprosate: Can help restore the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, which can help with alcohol cravings.
- Naltrexone: May decrease a person’s desire to drink by blocking “high” that occurs from alcohol.
- Benzodiazepines: Used to treat anxiety, insomnia, and seizures, which can all be symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.
What Happens After Treatment?
When you or your loved one completes an inpatient or outpatient alcohol treatment program, this is a time for celebration. However, even with this great accomplishment, it’s also important to remember that this is just the beginning. For many people, staying sober is a lifelong process. Even though the University of Pennsylvania Health System states that 70% of alcoholics who spend at least a year participating in a treatment program end up maintaining lifelong sobriety, many alcoholics find that they need to remain engaged in some kind of long-term maintenance program in order to stay sober. Having consistent accountability and support can make all the difference when it comes to abstaining from alcohol long-term.
Long-term maintenance programs take many forms. Most reputable treatment centers have aftercare programs, which gives their former patients access to amenities such as:
- Sober Mentoring
- Sober Living Options
- Educational Programs
- Alumni Activities
Many alcoholics also choose to participate in 12-Step or Non-12-Step Programs for continued support after they leave treatment. Some even stay with these programs for life. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is the most well-known 12-Step program for those with an alcohol use disorder. There are also several Non-12-Step programs for alcoholics, such as:
- SMART Recovery
- Women in Sobriety
- Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS)
What If I Relapse?
After completing treatment, the thought of relapsing can be scary. Many people fear that relapsing means they have undone all of the hard work previously done in treatment and that they will never achieve sobriety again. However, just as those with chronic conditions such as asthma or rheumatoid arthritis may have flare-ups of the disease throughout their life, for some alcoholics, relapse is part of the process. If a relapse occurs, it’s important to remember that this is not a sign of failure, but a blip on the road to lifelong sobriety. Relapsing also does not mean that treatment is not working. It may signify that your course of treatment needs to change for the time being, but that is something you should always discuss with your healthcare provider and/or therapist.
Ways To Prevent Relapse
Certain events or emotional states may trigger a relapse in recovering alcoholics. Being aware of these triggers and knowing what triggers activate you or your loved one may help prevent relapse. Some triggers to be aware of include:
- Feelings of sadness, loneliness, anger, and anxiety
- Stressful events and life changes such as marital troubles, financial problems, or medical issues
- Being around alcohol
- Feeling social pressure to drink
- Being with friends or at specific places that the alcoholic associates with drinking
If you do feel the urge to relapse, reach out to your therapist, sponsor or sober mentor (if applicable), a friend, or a family member. There’s no shame in having the urge to relapse, but telling someone sooner rather than later will allow them to get you the help you need.
Advice for Friends and Family Members
If your loved one is suffering from alcoholism, try to exercise patience while also making time to practice your own self-care. Like any chronic disease, recovering from alcoholism can take time and may not always be a smooth road. Many reputable treatment programs try to include family and friends in the recovery process as much as possible, as having the support of loved ones outside of treatment can be invaluable for the recovering alcoholic. Although your participation in the process can be vitally important, you also need to take care of yourself. Programs such as Al-Anon, which is a support group for friends and family members of alcoholics, may be beneficial as you help support your loved one on the road to recovery.
Where to Turn for Help
Recognizing that you or a loved one has a problem with alcohol can be jarring. If you’re concerned that someone you know may be struggling with alcoholism and don’t know where to turn, Nexus is here to help. Our trusted and compassionate recovery advisors will provide a free, confidential consultation so you can decide on a course of action for treatment. Contact Nexus today and get started on the road to recovery.