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How is Alcohol Use Disorder Treated?

Whether an alcohol use disorder is mild, moderate or severe, treatment can help end alcohol abuse for good and restore daily life. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, once an addiction develops, professional help is almost always needed for long-term recovery. Currently, approximately less than eight percent of people who need help overcoming an alcohol use disorder get the help needed for a successful recovery. Some of the reasons why people avoid treatment include:

Alcohol Education

  • Fear that treatment won’t work for them
  • Fear of what others will think
  • Fear of losing friends
  • Fear of what life will be like without alcohol
  • An inability to afford treatment
  • Feeling ambivalent about recovery
  • Denial that the drinking is a problem

Choosing to seek help for an alcohol use disorder vastly increases the chances of long-term recovery. Treatment does more than simply help stop drinking. It helps to repair damaged relationships, redefine happiness, purpose and meaning in a life without alcohol. Alcohol use disorder treatment occurs in three phases: detox, treatment, and aftercare.


Detox is the first step in treating alcohol use disorder. Medical detox is recommended for people with alcohol dependence, since withdrawal symptoms may turn dangerous. Medical detox involves supervision by medical personnel who can administer medication as needed to alleviate uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. Professionals are on hand to address serious medical complications in the event of severe withdrawal, also known as delirium tremens, or DTs.


Withdrawal may produce a range of symptoms. Not everyone experiences all of the symptoms associated with alcohol withdrawal. The severity of symptoms can range from mild to severe, depending on a number of factors.

Common withdrawal symptoms associated with alcohol include:

  • Intense cravings
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Mild hallucinations
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Nightmares
  • Severe hallucinations
  • Severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:
  • Chest or stomach pain
  • Sudden delirium
  • Tremors
  • Agitation
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • High fever
  • Seizures

Support While in Detox

Detox provides a high level of emotional and medical support. High quality detox programs offer complementary therapies like yoga, acupuncture, massage therapy and meditation to help improve feelings of calm, good health and wellbeing.

Assessments for the Next Step

Detox only addresses alcohol dependence. It’s not addiction treatment and does very little to address the problems people with alcohol use disorder experience and need help with. During detox, a variety of medical and mental health assessments give care providers information about your medical history, mental health history, nutrition, the underlying causes of your addiction, and whether you need additional services, such as housing or employment assistance. Care providers use this information to develop a comprehensive, individualized treatment plan and determine the best setting for treatment, whether an inpatient or outpatient program.

Treating the Addiction

A high quality, holistic treatment program offers the best possible outcomes of treatment, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. A holistic approach to treatment addresses a wide range of issues of body, mind and spirit. It recognizes that there are many pathways to recovery, and what works for one person may not work for another. A holistic treatment program promotes whole-person healing through traditional and complementary therapies and a number of other services and interventions. It addresses multiple issues to help clients create a new, sober lifestyle that will promote long-term recovery.

Traditional Treatments

Traditional therapies used in the treatment are evidence-based therapies that are shown to successfully treat an alcohol use disorder. The most effective and commonly used traditional treatment therapy is cognitive-behavioral therapy, which helps individuals change harmful thought and behavior patterns and develop coping skills for managing negative emotions, cravings and stress, which are major relapse triggers. 

Holistic Treatments

Complementary treatment therapies include art therapy, mindfulness meditation, sound bath healing and yoga. These and other therapies are shown to be effective for treating addiction when they’re used alongside traditional “talk” therapies. Complementary therapies help reduce stress and negative emotions while also promoting greater self-awareness and a healthier lifestyle.

How Does Treatment Help?

Through traditional and complementary therapies, individuals in treatment:

  • Change unhelpful thought and behavior patterns
  • Address underlying issues, such as a history of trauma, chronic stress, or mental illness
  • Develop essential skills central to recovery
  • Find purpose and meaning in a life of sobriety
  • Learn to relax and have a good time without alcohol
  • Repair damaged relationships
  • Restore function to all domains of life
  • Improve self-esteem, self-awareness, and self-confidence
  • Learn to cope with negative emotions and experiences in healthy ways


Once treatment ends, recovery support continues through aftercare. Aftercare plans are highly individualized and help the transition from treatment to independent recovery. A typical aftercare plan will include ongoing therapy through an outpatient program, participation in a peer support group in the community and ongoing monitoring of physical or mental health issues. Additional components of the plan will be added as needed and may include a variety of services and interventions. A case manager periodically reviews the aftercare plan and makes adjustments based upon a client’s changing needs.