Evidence-Based Reviews

Medication for alcohol use disorder: Which agents work best?

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In studies for AUD, the side-effect profile for baclofen was relatively benign.11-13 Nausea, fatigue, sleepiness, vertigo, and abdominal pain were reported; overall, baclofen was found to be safe and to have no abuse liability.7,10,12 The addictive potential of other muscle relaxers may have dissuaded providers from using baclofen for AUD, but we consider it a reasonable alternative when FDA-approved treatments fail.

Because baclofen is primarily eliminated by the kidneys, it may be safe for people with cirrhosis or severe liver disease.12 Baseline renal labs should be performed before administering baclofen and a negative pregnancy test obtained for women of childbearing age.

Ondansetron is a serotonin receptor type 3 (5-HT3) antagonist that has shown promising results for AUD.3,7 Research suggests that 5-HT3 receptors are an action site for alcohol in the brain and are thought to play a role in its rewarding effects.7 Ondansetron may be more effective for early-onset alcoholism (EOA) than late-onset alcoholism (LOA).14,15 EOA (age ≤25) is characterized by strong family history of AUD and prominent antisocial traits. A randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled trial (n = 271) reported that ondansetron, 4 mcg/kg twice daily, was superior to placebo in reducing number of drinks per day, increasing days abstinent, and reducing cravings in patients with EOA.14 Among persons with EOA, ondansetron, 16 mcg/kg twice daily, significantly reduced the severity of symptoms of fatigue, confusion, and overall mood disturbance such as depression, anxiety, and hostility compared with placebo in an RCT (n = 321).15 The lowest available oral dosage of ondansetron is 4 mg tablets or 4 mg/5 mL solution. We have used 4 mg twice daily for patients who have failed naltrexone and acamprosate or when these agents are contraindicated.

Common side effects of ondansetron include constipation, diarrhea, elevated liver enzymes, tachycardia, headache, and fatigue. Contraindications include congenital long QT syndrome, QTc prolongation risk, or significant hepatic impairment. We suggest evaluating baseline electrocardiogram and liver function tests. Women should undergo a pregnancy test before receiving medications.

Gabapentin is an anticonvulsant that is FDA-approved for treating epilepsy and postherpetic neuralgia. Gabapentin is related structurally to GABA and may potentiate central nervous system GABA activity, inhibit glutamate activity, and reduce norepinephrine and dopamine release.16 Gabapentin is thought to balance the GABA/glutamate dysregulation found in early alcohol abstinence and reduce risk for alcohol relapse.16A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial (N = 60) demonstrated that gabapentin, 600 mg/d, significantly reduced number of drinks per day and heavy drinking days and increased days of abstinence compared with placebo over 28 days.17 Another double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial of 150 people used gabapentin, 900 or 1,800 mg/d; there was a linear dose response for increased days abstinent and no heavy drinking days in favor of gabapentin.18

An RCT (N = 150) evaluated adding gabapentin, up to 1200 mg/d, to naltrexone, 50 mg/d, vs naltrexone with placebo or double placebo over 6 weeks of treatment. The combined gabapentin-naltrexone group outperformed the other 2 groups on time to heavy drinking, number of heavy drinking days, and number of drinks per day. Gabapentin’s positive effects on sleep may have mediated some of its beneficial effects.29 In an open-label pilot study, gabapentin was more effective than trazodone for insomnia during early alcohol abstinence.30 Of note, gabapentin is a safe alternative to benzodiazepines for alcohol detoxification in patients with severe hepatic disease or those at risk of interacting with alcohol (eg, outpatients at high risk to drink during detoxification).31 Gabapentin, 400 mg/d to 1,600 mg/d, generally is safe and well tolerated and has some support for improving cravings, reducing alcohol consumption, delaying relapse, and improving sleep in patients with AUD.

Side effects of gabapentin include daytime sedation, dizziness, ataxia, fatigue, and dyspepsia. Using 3 divided doses might enhance tolerability. To reduce daytime sedation, we recommend administering most of the dose at night, which also may relieve insomnia. Gabapentin is excreted through the kidney; baseline renal function tests should be performed before initiating treatment, because the dosage might need to be adjusted in people with renal insufficiency.

Bottom Line

FDA-approved (acamprosate, naltrexone, and disulfiram) and off-label (baclofen, gabapentin, ondansetron, and topiramate) agents can help patients with alcohol use disorder achieve abstinence, reduce heavy drinking days, prevent relapse, and maintain sobriety. Research supports the use of pharmacotherapy combined with psychosocial modalities, such as 12-step programs, motivational interviewing, and cognitive-behavioral therapy.

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