Alcohol withdrawal: a nationwide survey of inpatient treatment practices

R Saitz, L S Friedman, M F Mayo-Smith
Journal of General Internal Medicine 1995, 10 (9): 479-87

OBJECTIVE: To describe current practices employed in the inpatient treatment for alcohol withdrawal.

DESIGN: Survey.

SETTING: Inpatient alcoholism treatment programs in the United States.

PARTICIPANTS: Medical directors of 176 (69%) of 257 eligible programs randomly selected from a national listing.

RESULTS: The medical directors estimated that of all inpatients treated for alcohol withdrawal at the programs, 68% received one of the following medications. Benzodiazepines, including the long-acting chlordiazepoxide (33%) and diazepam (16%), and less frequently the short-acting oxazepam (7%) and lorazepam (4%), were the most commonly used agents. Barbiturates (11%), phenytoin (10%), clonidine (7%), beta-blockers (3%), carbamazepine (1%), and antipsychotics (1%) were less frequently given. Drug was most often given on a fixed dosing schedule with additional medication "as needed" (52% of the programs). Only 31% of the programs routinely used a standardized withdrawal severity scale to monitor patients. Mean duration of sedative treatment was three days; inpatient treatment, four days. Use of fixed-schedule regimens was associated with longer sedative treatment (mean four vs three days, p < 0.01). Northeast census region location and psychiatrist program director were significantly associated with longer sedative and inpatient treatment duration.

CONCLUSIONS: The most commonly reported regimen for alcohol withdrawal included three days of long-acting benzodiazepines on a fixed schedule with additional medication "as needed." Standardized monitoring of the severity of withdrawal was not common practice. The directors reported using a variety of other regimens, some not known to prevent the major complications of withdrawal. Although geographic location and director specialty were significantly associated with treatment duration, much of the variation in treatment for alcohol withdrawal remains unexplained.

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