What Are the Pros and Cons of Baclofen for Alcoholism?

Melissa Barrett

The use of baclofen for alcoholism treatment shows great promise. People who use this drug are generally more likely to stop drinking and maintain sobriety longer than those using traditional methods. In addition, this medication is significantly less addictive than other medications, such as diazepam, that are given for alcohol withdrawal. While this drug itself has been approved in the United States, its usage in alcohol treatment is not officially recognized. In addition, baclofen has a high incidence of related side effects, some potentially serious.

A drunk woman.
A drunk woman.

A 2002 study describing the effects of using baclofen for alcoholism was published in the Oxford Journals in the same year. This study, conducted by the Medical Council on Alcohol, showed that patients who were given the drug were far more likely to quit drinking than those who were given placebos. In addition, these individuals had fewer cravings and less anxiety than the control group.

In 2007, Italian researchers from the Institute of Internal Medicine of the Catholic University of Rome showed even more promising results. They concluded that approximately 75 percent of their 84 subjects were able to achieve sobriety when using baclofen for alcoholism treatment. This study is particularly compelling as the subjects involved were long-term drinkers with significant cirrhosis of the liver. Lasting only 12 weeks, this study was admittedly brief. Still, successful patients showed marked improvement in liver function and higher-than-average adherence to treatment.

The main disadvantage of baclofen for alcoholism is the possibility of side effects. Over half of all patients taking the drug may experience some kind of reaction. In most cases, this reaction is the form of mild to moderate lethargy. Bothersome symptoms including vertigo, insomnia, nausea, and constipation are also common.

Although rare, patients using baclofen for alcoholism may experience more serious side effects. Some individuals using this drug have had bloody stools caused by bleeding in the stomach and bowels. In addition, dangerously low blood pressure and slow heart rates have been reported in a small number of patients taking baclofen. Although exceedingly rare, epileptic seizures are also a potential side effect of this medication.

The use of baclofen during pregnancy has been associated with protruding abdominal hernia in newborns. Conversely, excessive maternal alcohol consumption during pregnancy can lead to fetal alcohol syndrome. Women who are expecting should discuss the risks and benefits of taking this drug with their physician. Baclofen is also excreted in breast milk.

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