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Feigning alcohol withdrawal symptoms can render the CIWA-Ar scale useless

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The Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol–Revised (CIWA-Ar) scale is a well-established protocol that attempts to measure the degree of alcohol and benzodiazepine withdrawal. The CIWA-Ar scale measures 10 domains and indexes the severity of withdrawal on a scale from 0 to 67; scores >8 are generally considered to be indicative of at least mild-to-moderate withdrawal, and scores >20 represent significant withdrawal.1 Despite its common use in many medical settings, the CIWA-Ar scale has been impugned as a less-than-reliable index of true alcohol withdrawal2 and has the potential for misuse among ordering physicians.3 In this case report, I describe a malingering patient who intentionally and successfully feigned symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, which demonstrates that the purposeful reproduction of symptoms measured by the CIWA-Ar scale can render the protocol clinically useless.


Mr. G, a 63-year-old African-American man, was admitted to the general medical floor with a chief complaint of alcohol withdrawal. He had a history of alcohol use disorder, severe, and unspecified depression. He said he had been drinking a gallon of wine plus “a fifth” of vodka every day for the past 1.5 months. More than 1 year ago, he had been admitted for alcohol withdrawal with subsequent delirium tremens, but he denied having any other psychiatric history.

In the emergency department, Mr. G was given IV lorazepam, 6 mg total, for alcohol withdrawal. He was reported to be “scoring” on the CIWA-Ar scale with apparently uncontrollable tremulousness, visual hallucinations, and confusion. His vitals were within normal limits, his mean corpuscular volume and lipase level were within normal limits, and the rest of his presentation was largely unremarkable.

Once admitted to the general medical floor, he continued to receive benzodiazepines for what was documented as severe alcohol withdrawal. When clinical staff were not in the room, the patient was observed to be resting comfortably without tremulousness. When the patient was seen by the psychiatry consultation service, he produced full body tremulousness with marked shoulder and hip thrusting. His account of how much he had been drinking contradicted the amount he reported to other teams in the hospital. When the consulting psychiatrist appeared unimpressed by his full body jerking, the patient abruptly pointed to the corner of the room and yelled “What is that?” when nothing was there. When the primary medical team suggested to the patient that his vitals were within normal limits and he did not appear to be in true alcohol withdrawal, the patient escalated the degree of his full body jerking.

Over the next few days, the patient routinely would tell clinical staff “I’m having DTs.” He also specifically requested lorazepam. After consultation, the medical and psychiatry teams determined the patient was feigning symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. The lorazepam was discontinued, and the patient was discharged home with outpatient psychiatric follow-up.

Limitations of the CIWA-Ar scale

The CIWA-Ar scale is intended to guide the need for medications, such as benzodiazepines, to help mitigate symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Symptom-triggered benzodiazepine treatment has been shown to be superior to fixed-schedule dosing.4 However, symptom-triggered treatment is problematic in the setting of feigned symptoms.

Feigning symptoms measured by the CIWA-Ar scale

When psychiatrists and nurses calculate a CIWA-Ar score, they rely on both subjective accounts of a patient’s withdrawal severity as well as objective signs, such as vitals and a physical examination. Many of the elements included in the CIWA-Ar scale can be easily feigned (Table). Feigned alcohol withdrawal may fall into 2 categories: (1) the false reporting of subjective symptoms, and (2) the false portrayal of objective signs.

Continue to: The false reporting...

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