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When Should You Seek Professional and Medical Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder?

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 “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” - Lao-tzu, The Way of Lao-tzu

As an addiction medicine psychiatrist, I believe that to change a behavior, we must first recognize that a problem exists. This approach applies whether it's a habit to break or an addictive behavior to stop. Addiction occurs for various reasons and can manifest itself behaviorally or emotionally. Once help is sought, then intervention can begin. 

Given the physical and psychological dependence that accompanies addiction, professional treatment is one of the most effective ways to treat alcohol use disorders. A medically-supervised recovery plan is quicker, less stressful, and safer than a solo attempt. A professional treatment program helps alcoholics manage their cravings, cope with emotional highs and lows, and learn how to maintain sobriety.

What Are the Symptoms of an Alcohol Use Disorder?  

There are certain symptoms and signs which can signify that an individual has an alcohol use disorder and would benefit from treatment. Some commonly occurring symptoms include:

  • Temporary blackouts or memory gaps
  • Erratic behavior with friends and family
  • Depression, irritability, or mood swings
  • Alcohol needed to sleep, relax, or cope with problems
  • Anxiety, insomnia, nausea and headache 
  • Broken capillaries and flushed complexion
  • Secretive or solitary drinking 

When to Contact a Doctor

The following questions can also be helpful in identifying a drinking problem: 

  • Is abstinence impossible?
  • Does criticism about drinking cause annoyance?
  • Did drinking lead to the loss of a job or relationship?
  • Is a quick drink necessary to steady nerves or help a hangover?

If two or more of these questions elicit a “yes, ” it could signify a drinking problem that requires intervention. 

Treatment is a Process

Abstinence is often crucial to successful treatment, but cravings can sometimes make this a difficult task. Although some people are able to cut back or stop drinking on their own, the best advice is to seek treatment from a medical professional (or a medical facility) with direct experience in dealing with addiction. 

Successful treatment for many patients requires three interdependent steps:

Detoxification – Prepares a person for actual treatment, but does not entail a mental, social, or behavior change.

Rehabilitation – Equips the recovering alcoholic with the necessary skills to maintain sobriety. The patient receives counseling and possibly prescribed medications to help in the process.

Sobriety Maintenance -  The recovering alcoholic must be self-driven to maintain the final phase. Successful sobriety is helped by support from friends, family and/or a self-help group like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). 

Every patient and case is different and treatment can be tailored and adjusted to meet individual needs. Regardless of approach, it's important to identify obtainable treatment goals and methods. A plan helps the patient remain on track. A team of specialists including a psychologist, psychiatrist, primary care physician, counselors, social workers, and nurses could be part of a recovery program.

Select a Treatment Program that Fits

When an individual with an alcohol use disorder is ready for medical intervention, the first doctor to consult could be a psychiatrist or primary care doctor. Often a person already has an existing relationship with a medical doctor so together, they can decide upon an appropriate treatment plan. 

Patients who have support from a network of family and friends might benefit from an outpatient program while individuals with a history of poor social support or multiple relapses might be well served in a residential program. These are decisions which are best reached following careful thought. 

Taking The Leap

An individual must want the change for a treatment to be effective. I tell my patients that they must be ready to confront their addiction and choose to change their behavior. Without their willingness to change, treatment is often not successful. 

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Dr. Ellie Mizani is the Medical Director at the Mental Health Center at Cedars-Sinai Towers in Los Angeles where she practices as a board-certified psychiatrist specializing in child and adolescent psychiatry and addiction medicine.



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