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

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The false reporting of subjective symptoms can include the reported presence of nausea or vomiting, anxiety, tactile hallucinations, auditory hallucinations, headache or head fullness, and visual hallucinations. The false portrayal of objective signs can include the feigning of tremulousness, agitation, and confusion (eg, incorrectly answering orienting questions). In both categories, the simple presence of these signs or symptoms, whether falsely reported or falsely portrayed, would cause the patient to “score” on the CIWA-Ar scale.

Thus, the need to effectively rule out feigned symptoms is essential because inappropriate dosing of benzodiazepines can be dangerous, costly, and utilize limited hospital resources that could otherwise be diverted to a patient with a true medical or psychiatric illness. In these instances, it is crucial to pay close attention to vital signs because these are more reliable indices of withdrawal. A patient’s ability to purposefully feign symptoms of alcohol withdrawal highlights the limitations of the CIWA-Ar scale as a validated measure of alcohol withdrawal, and renders it effectively useless in the setting of either malingering or factitious disorder.

Resnick5 describes malingering as either pure malingering, partial malingering, or false imputation. Pure malingering refers to the feigning of a nonexistent disorder or illness. Partial malingering refers to the exaggeration of symptoms that are present, but to a lesser degree. False imputation refers to the attribution of symptoms from a separate disorder to one the patient knows is unrelated (eg, attributing chronic low back pain from a prior sports injury to a recent motor vehicle accident). In Mr. G’s case, he had multiple prior admissions for true, non-feigned alcohol withdrawal with subsequent delirium tremens. His knowledge of the signs and symptoms of alcohol withdrawal therefore helped him make calculated efforts to manipulate clinical staff in his quest to obtain benzodiazepines. Whether this was pure or partial malingering remained unclear because Mr. G’s true level of withdrawal could not be adequately assessed.

Potentially serious consequences

The CIWA-Ar scale is among the most widely used scales to determine the level of alcohol withdrawal and need for subsequent benzodiazepine treatment. However, its effective use is limited because it relies on subjective symptoms and objective signs that can be easily feigned or manipulated. In the setting of malingering or factitious disorder, when a patient is feigning symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, the CIWA-Ar scale may be rendered clinically useless. This can lead to dangerous iatrogenic adverse effects, lengthy and nontherapeutic hospital stays, and an increasing financial burden on health care systems.

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