Alcoholism is a term with multiple sometimes conflicting definitions, but with no formal recognition of the divergence of meaning. In common and historical usage, alcoholism typically refers to any condition that results in the continued consumption of alcoholic beverages despite negative personal and social consequences.
Medical definitions describe alcoholism as a disease which may result in a persistent difficulty in controlling alcohol consumption. Alcoholism may also refer to a preoccupation with or compulsion toward the consumption of alcohol and/or an impaired ability to recognize the negative effects of excessive alcohol consumption. Although not all of these definitions specify current and on-going use of alcohol as a qualifier, some do, as well as remarking on the long-term effects of consistent, heavy alcohol use, including dependence and symptoms of withdrawal.
While the ingestion of alcohol is, by definition, necessary to develop alcoholism, the use of alcohol does not predict the development of alcoholism. The quantity, frequency and regularity of alcohol consumption required to develop alcoholism varies greatly from person to person. In addition, although the biological mechanisms underpinning alcoholism are uncertain, some risk factors, including social environment, emotional health and genetic predisposition, have been identified.
The definitions of alcoholism and related terminology vary significantly between the medical community, treatment programs, and the general public.
The Journal of the American Medical Association defines alcoholism as "a primary, chronic disease characterized by impaired control over drinking, preoccupation with the drug alcohol, use of alcohol despite adverse consequences, and distortions in thinking."
The DSM-IV (the standard for diagnosis in psychiatry and psychology) defines alcohol abuse as repeated use despite recurrent adverse consequences. ; further defining alcohol dependence as alcohol abuse combined with tolerance, withdrawal, and an uncontrollable drive to drink. (See DSM diagnosis below.)
According to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, alcoholism is the popular term for alcohol dependence. Note that there is debate whether dependence in this use is physical (characterised by withdrawal), psychological (based on reinforcement), or both.
Many terms are applied to a drinker's relationship with alcohol. Use, misuse, heavy use, abuse, addiction, and dependence are all common labels used to describe drinking habits, but the actual meaning of these words can vary greatly depending upon the context in which they are used. Even within the medical field, the definition can vary between areas of specialization. The introduction of politics and religion further muddles the issue.
Use refers to simple use of a substance. An individual who drinks any alcoholic beverage is using alcohol. Misuse, problem use, and heavy use do not have standard definitions, but suggest consumption of alcohol beyond the point where it causes physical, social, or moral harm to the drinker. The definitions of social and moral harm are highly subjective and therefore differ from individual to individual.
Within politics, abuse is often used to refer to the illegal use of any substance. Within the broad field of medicine, abuse sometimes refers to use of prescription medications in excess of the prescribed dosage, sometimes refers to use of a prescription drug without a prescription, and sometimes refers to use that results in long-term health problems. Within religion, abuse can refer to any use of a poorly regarded substance. The term is often avoided because it can cause confusion with audiences that do not necessarily share a single definition.
Remission is often used to refer to a state where an alcoholic is no longer showing symptoms of alcoholism. The American Psychiatric Association considers remission to be a condition where the physical and mental symptoms of alcoholism are no longer evident, regardless of whether or not the person is still drinking. They further subdivide those in remission into early or sustained, and partial or full. Others (most notably Alcoholics Anonymous) use the term recovery to describe those who have completely stopped consumption of alcohol.
Substance use disorders are a major public health problem facing many countries. "The most common substance of abuse/dependence in patients presenting for treatment is alcohol." In the United Kingdom, the number of 'dependent drinkers' was calculated as over 2.8 million in 2001.
Within the medical community, there is broad consensus regarding alcoholism as a disease state. Outside the medical community, there is considerable debate regarding the Disease Theory of Alcoholism. Proponents argue that any structural or functional disorder having a predictable course, or progression, should be classified as a disease. Opponents cite the inability to pin down the behavioral issues to a physical cause as a reason for avoiding classification.
A 2002 study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism surveyed a group of 4,422 adult alcoholics and found that after one year some were no longer alcoholics, with the breakdown as follows:
Multiple tools are available to those wishing to conduct screening for alcoholism. Identification of alcoholism may be difficult because there is no detectable physiologic difference between a person who drinks frequently and a person with the condition. Identification involves an objective assessment regarding the damage that imbibing alcohol does to the drinker's life compared to the subjective benefits the drinker perceives from consuming alcohol. While there are many cases where an alcoholic's life has been significantly and obviously damaged, there are always borderline cases that can be difficult to classify.
Addiction Medicine specialists have extensive training with respect to diagnosing and treating patients with alcoholism.
Several tools may be used to detect a loss of control of alcohol use. These tools are mostly self reports in questionnaire form. Another common theme is a score or tally that sums up the general severity of alcohol use.
The CAGE questionnaire, among others, has been extensively validated for use in identifying alcoholism. It is not valid for diagnosis of other substance use disorders, although somewhat modified versions of the CAGE are frequently implemented for such a purpose.
Psychiatric geneticists John I. Nurnberger, Jr., and Laura Jean Bierut indicate that alcoholism does not have a single cause?including genetic?but that genes do play an important role "by affecting processes in the body and brain that interact with one another and with an individual's life experiences to produce protection or susceptibility." They also report that less than a dozen alcoholism-related genes have been identified, but that more likely await discovery.
At least one genetic test exists for an allele that is correlated to alcoholism and opiate addiction. Human dopamine receptor genes have a detectable variation referred to as the DRD2 TaqI polymorphism. Those who possess the A1 allele (variation) of this polymorphism have a small but significant tendency towards addiction to opiates and endorphin releasing drugs like alcohol. Although this allele is slightly more common in alcoholics and opiate addicts, it is not by itself an adequate predictor of alcoholism, and some researchers argue that evidence for DRD2 is contradictory.
Some writers posit that alcohol was discovered to be a replacement for polluted drinking water in early urban societies. In these conditions, alcohol's antibacterial properties offset its health risk, and the slow death of cirrhosis of the liver was preferred to an early death from waterborne disease. This caused a selection pressure on the genes of humans who had abandoned the hunter-gatherer lifestyle towards people with genes which were not prone to over consumption and drunkenness. Over generations, the descendants of these first farmers and urban dwellers became dominated by individuals who could drink more beer more often. This theory explains why some groups who continued a predominately hunter-gatherer culture, such as Native Americans or Australian Aborigines, have such high rates of alcoholism today .
The DSM-IV diagnosis of alcohol dependence represents one approach to the definition of alcoholism. In part this is to assist in the development of research protocols in which findings can be compared with one another. According to the DSM-IV, an alcohol dependence diagnosis is:
There are reliable tests for the actual use of alcohol, one common test being that of blood alcohol content (BAC). These tests do not differentiate alcoholics from non-alcoholics; however, long-term heavy drinking does have a few recognizable effects on the body, including:
The primary effect of alcoholism is to encourage the sufferer to drink at times and in amounts that are damaging. The secondary damage caused by an inability to control one's drinking manifests in many ways.
It is common for a person suffering from alcoholism to drink well after physical health effects start to manifest. The physical health effects associated with alcohol consumption are described in Alcohol consumption and health, but may include cirrhosis of the liver, pancreatitis, polyneuropathy, alcoholic dementia, heart disease, increased chance of cancer, nutritional deficiencies, sexual dysfunction, and death from many sources.
The social problems arising from alcoholism can be significant. Being drunk or hung over during work hours can result in loss of employment, which can lead to financial problems including the loss of living quarters. Drinking at inappropriate times, and behavior caused by reduced judgment, can lead to legal consequences, such as criminal charges for drunk driving or public disorder, or civil penalties for tortious behavior. An alcoholic's behavior and mental impairment while drunk can profoundly impact surrounding family and friends, possibly leading to marital conflict and divorce, or contributing to domestic violence. This can contribute to lasting damage to the emotional development of the alcoholic's children, even after they reach adulthood. The alcoholic could suffer from loss of respect from others who may see the problem as self-inflicted and easily avoided.
Alcohol withdrawal differs significantly from withdrawal from other drugs in that it can be directly fatal. While it is possible for heroin addicts, for instance, to die from other health problems made worse by the strain of withdrawal, an otherwise healthy alcoholic can die from the direct effects of withdrawal if it is not properly managed. Heavy consumption of alcohol reduces the production of GABA, which is a neuroinhibitor. An abrupt stop of alcohol consumption can induce a condition where neither alcohol nor GABA exists in the system in adequate quantities, causing uncontrolled firing of the synapses. This manifests as hallucinations, shakes, convulsions, seizures, and possible heart failure, all of which are collectively referred to as delirium tremens. All of these withdrawal issues can be safely controlled with a medically supervised detox.
Treatments for alcoholism are quite varied because there are multiple perspectives for the condition itself. Those who approach alcoholism as a medical condition or disease recommend differing treatments than, for instance, those who approach the condition as one of social choice.
Most treatments focus on helping people discontinue their alcohol intake, followed up with life training and/or social support in order to help them resist a return to alcohol use. Since alcoholism involves multiple factors which encourage a person to continue drinking, they must all be addressed in order to successfully prevent a relapse. An example of this kind of treatment is detoxification followed by a combination of supportive therapy, attendance at self-help groups, and ongoing development of coping mechanisms. The treatment community for alcoholism typically supports an abstinence-based zero tolerance approach; however, there are some who promote a harm-reduction approach as well.
The effectiveness of alcoholism treatments varies widely. When considering the effectiveness of treatment options, one must consider the success rate based on those who enter a program, not just those who complete it. Since completion of a program is the qualification for success, success among those who complete a program is generally near 100%. It is also important to consider not just the rate of those reaching treatment goals but the rate of those relapsing. Results should also be compared to the roughly 5% rate at which people will quit on their own. Based on information from Dr. Mark Willenbring of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the February 2007 issue of Newsweek reported that "A year after completing a rehab program, about a third of alcoholics are sober, an additional 40 percent are substantially improved but still drink heavily on occasion, and a quarter have completely relapsed."
Alcohol detoxification or 'detox' for alcoholics is an abrupt stop of alcohol drinking coupled with the substitution of drugs that have similar effects to prevent alcohol withdrawal.
Detoxification treats the physical effects of prolonged use of alcohol, but does not actually treat alcoholism. After detox is complete, relapse is likely without further treatment. These rehabilitations (or 'rehabs') may take place in an inpatient or outpatient setting.
After detoxification, various forms of group therapy or psychotherapy can be used to deal with underlying psychological issues that are related to alcohol addiction, as well as provide relapse prevention skills.
The mutual-help group-counseling approach is one of the most common ways of helping alcoholics maintain sobriety. Many organizations have been formed to provide this service, including Alcoholics Anonymous, LifeRing Secular Recovery, Rational Recovery, Smart Recovery, Al-Anon/Alateen, and Women For Sobriety.
Rationing and moderation programs such as Moderation Management do not mandate complete abstinence. While most alcoholics are unable to limit their drinking in this way, some return to moderate drinking. A 2002 U.S. study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) showed that 17.7% of individuals diagnosed as alcohol dependent more than one year prior returned to low-risk drinking.
Although not necessary for treatment of alcoholism, a variety of medications may be prescribed as part of treatment. Some may ease the transition to sobriety, while others cause physical hardship to result from the use of alcohol. In most cases the desired effect is to have an alcoholic abstain from drinking.
Pharmacological extinction is the use of opioid antagonists like naltrexone combined with normal drinking habits to eliminate the craving for alcohol. The simple description is that the use of opioid antagonists reverses the effect that alcohol consumption has on alcohol addiction. When consuming alcohol with a proper dose of opioid antagonist in the drinker's system, the drinker will become less addicted to alcohol instead of more. This technique has been used to successfully treat tens of thousands of alcoholics in Finland, Pennsylvania, and Florida, and is sometimes referred to as the Sinclair Method.
While standard naltrexone treatment uses the drug to curb craving and enforce abstinence, pharmacological extinction targets the endorphin-based neurological conditioning. Our behaviors become conditioned when our neurons are bathed in endorphins following that action. Conversely, we receive negative reinforcement when we perform that action and yet do not get our endorphins. By having the alcoholic go about their normal drinking habits (limited only by safety concerns), and while preventing the endorphins from being released by the alcohol, the pull to drink is eliminated over a period of about three months. This allows an alcoholic to give up drinking as being sensibly unbeneficial. The effects persist after the drug is discontinued, but the addiction can return if the person drinks without first taking the drug. This treatment is also highly unusual in that it works better if the patient does not go through detoxification before starting it. Clinical studies have shown this treatment to allow 78-87% of inductees to reduce their drinking below levels dangerous to health, and allow 25% of inductees to achieve complete abstinence. Follow-up studies indicate an overall 50% relapse rate over five years, and 2% relapse rate for those who continue to take naltrexone before drinking.
There is a lot of professional resistance to this treatment for two reasons. Studies have demonstrated that controlled drinking for alcoholics was not a useful treatment technique. Other studies have also shown naltrexone to be of questionable value in supporting abstinence alone. The individual failure of these two separate treatments suggests that their use in combination is equally ineffective. This would be the case if the two treatments were merely additive, as for two people pushing a car. Experimental evidence indicates that the presence of naltrexone causes the drinking of alcohol to have a reverse effect on alcoholism, decreasing the alcoholic's attachment to alcohol consumption when they drink instead of increasing it.
Preventative treatment of alcohol complications includes long-term use of a multivitamin as well as such specific vitamins as B12 and folate.
While nutritional therapy is not a treatment of alcoholism itself, it treats the difficulties that can arise after years of heavy alcohol use. Many alcohol dependents have insulin resistance syndrome, a metabolic disorder where the body's difficulty in processing sugars causes an unsteady supply to the blood stream. While the disorder can be diminished by a hypoglycemic diet, this can affect behavior and emotions, side-effects often seen among alcohol dependents in treatment. The metabolic aspects of such dependence are often overlooked, causing poor treatment outcomes.
The various health problems associated with long-term alcohol consumption are generally perceived as detrimental to society, for example, money due to lost labor-hours, medical costs, and secondary treatment costs. Alcohol use is a major contributing factor for head injuries, motor vehicle accidents, violence, and assaults. Beyond money, there is also the pain and suffering of the all individuals besides the alcoholic affected. For instance, alcohol consumption by a pregnant woman can lead to Fetal alcohol syndrome,'>www.cdc.gov/fas/faspub.htm an incurable and damaging condition.
Estimates of the economic costs of alcohol abuse, collected by the World Health Organization, vary from one to six per cent of a country's GDP. One Australian estimate pegged alcohol's social costs at 24 per cent of all drug abuse costs; a similar Canadian study concluded alcohol's share was 41 per cent.
A study quantified the cost to the UK of all forms of alcohol misuse as £18.5?20 billion annually (2001 figures).
or town drunk]] Stereotypes of alcoholics are often found in fiction and popular culture. Common examples include the 'town drunk' or the portrayal of certain nationalities as alcoholics. In modern times, the recovery movement has led to more realistic depictions of problems that stem from heavy alcohol use. Authors such as Charles R. Jackson and Charles Bukowski describe their own alcohol addiction in their writings. Films like Days of Wine and Roses, My Name is Bill W., Arthur, Leaving Las Vegas chronicle similar stories of alcoholism.
Because alcohol use disorders are perceived as impacting society as a whole, governments and parliaments have formed alcohol policies in order to reduce the harm of alcoholism. The World Health Organization, the European Union and other regional bodies are working on alcohol action plans and programs.
Organizations working with those suffering from alcoholism include:
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