The Confusion Continues: Can Baclofen Treat Alcoholism or Not?

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What happens when researchers deliver conflicting results? What should we believe?

A recent study examining the effectiveness of baclofen in alcohol dependence seems to fly in the face of previous research. Experts are questioning whether or not this drug is effective in treating alcohol dependence.

Just the Facts, Please

Baclofen is a muscle relaxant and antispastic agent. It is traditionally used to treat muscle symptoms such as spasm, pain and stiffness. Previous research “showed good results for treating alcohol dependence with high-dose baclofen.” Early studies indicated positive results, leading many physicians to prescribe the drug. In France, baclofen has been widely used for alcohol dependence treatment since 2014.

This latest study suggests this prescribing trend may be a little premature and less effective than French doctors had hoped. The controlled trial found no effect on relapse rates. In more than 150 patients, relapse rates were about the same for each of the three groups of participants – those who received high doses of baclofen, low doses of baclofen, and placebo.

Researchers were surprised by the outcome, considering previous results from other studies. Some say the baclofen use in France is “over-excitement.” However, researchers admit this study involved patients with lower drinking levels than previous trials. It’s possible the drug is more effective in heavier drinkers. Baclofen could still be beneficial for some specific groups of patients.

Back to the Old Drawing Board?

Few drugs are without side effects, and baclofen is no different. Many patients in the study experienced three main side effects. Researchers report: “There were frequent dose-related adverse events in terms of fatigue, sleepiness, and dry mouth. One medication-related serious adverse event occurred in the high-dose baclofen group…Adverse events were frequent, although generally mild and transient.”

As with any drug, one has to weigh the positive outcomes with these negative effects. In this case, the side effects were frequent, but a dry mouth and tiredness don’t appear to be too adverse. If the drug helps, and these are the only negatives, it might be worth trying. But, does it really help with alcohol dependence?

Clearly, additional studies are needed to determine what potential help, if any, baclofen can provide for those struggling with alcohol dependence. For now, based on these recent findings and previous studies, researchers suggest that “baclofen might not have any additional effects to intensive inpatient psycho-social therapy, but could rather be used when patients do not respond to psycho-social therapy.”

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