Ketamine treatment to help rehabilitation from alcohol addiction

Conventional treatment for alcohol addiction

The 12 Step programme of Alcoholics Anonymous works and has, for over 85 years, helped hundreds of thousands of people regain their life to find and maintain sobriety.

Younger people are now seeking help in an alcohol detox clinic

rehab group session

It was not that long ago that the general age for people being admitted to The Haynes Clinic for residential alcohol treatment would be in the age group of 45 to 60.  Now it is more common for the younger age groups to seek help for their addiction.  This is largely due to a change in drinking habits and the way we drink. For example, if drinking at home, we will almost certainly pour larger measures than the standard measures poured out for us in a pub environment. The covid pandemic and working from home has also been a reason for some people to have increased their alcohol intake.  These changes have led to those with a predisposition to have an alcohol addiction to shorten the time that they need to seek help. Hence one of the reasons why younger people are accessing treatment.

Generally, people will be admitted for a 28-day residential alcohol treatment programme that will include a seven to ten day alcohol detox and a structured daily plan of therapy and attendance at AA meetings. At The Haynes Clinic we also offer, once a week, ongoing aftercare to act as further support.

Changes required after addiction rehab

The individual who has completed treatment will need to make changes to their addictive thinking and behaviour once they have left the safe environment of an alcohol rehab or addiction clinic. They will have ongoing support from the rehab clinic and their 12 Step Programme to help them. They will still face a challenging time, though, especially in the early weeks and months following addiction rehab. This will be the case for all ages but for a younger person it will be particularly hard for them to accept the reality that they are facing a life without any alcohol.  They are also likely be thinking “how am I meant to have fun with my friends if they are all out partying and I am unable to join in?”.

Risk of relapse

The period that holds the highest risk for an alcohol relapse is within the first 6 months after leaving alcohol addiction treatment. It has been proven that it is during this time when we are trying to make changes to our life that we are most susceptible to relapse back to drinking alcohol again. Generally, once we relapse, we end up drinking what we used to drink before we went into alcohol addiction treatment plus more within a three-week period.  If an individual can get over this 6-month hurdle, they will generally go on to long term sobriety (with another high risk relapse point being at about a year). 

Research on the effectiveness of ketamine and therapy post alcohol detox

Researchers in England have been running clinical trials to test the effectiveness of the drug Ketamine, combined with therapy, to help people during the first 6-month after rehab treatment to prevent a relapse back to drinking alcohol. Early trials have shown that low doses of ketamine combined with psychological therapy can help people with an alcohol addiction to stay sober longer and effectively prevent a relapse.

Ketamine has primarily been used as an anaesthetic or tranquiliser for animals and humans. For many years it has also been used as an illegal recreational drug. As a drug, it provides sedation, pain relief and amnesia.  It is used illegally to produce dissociative sensations and hallucinations and is well known as a “club drug.”

In recent years there have been studies exploring the fact that small, daily doses of Ketamine can be a very effective treatment for someone with depression.  There are also associated depressive feelings with those people who have completed a 28-day residential 12 Step treatment programme.   They will have  feelings of guilt, shame, sadness, anger and remorse as a result of realising how low their drinking has taken them and how it has affected others around them. 

It was out of the association of treating depression with ketamine that it was considered to help those looking to change their addictive behaviour. This led to  trials of ketamine on sober alcoholics who were not drinking being started.  It is also thought that low doses of Ketamine can change our thought patterns and even block cravings and unrealistic memories about the good times of drinking that are considered a trigger for a relapse.

Ketamine is not some magic pill that will stop a relapse.  It is clear from the trials that a small, measured daily dose of Ketamine has to be combined with therapy, and it is this combination with therapy that makes it so effective.  Recent research showed that the latest trial group were 2.5 more likely to remain completely abstinent at the trial’s end than those in the trial who were given a placebo.  

Currently the trials are being led by Exeter University and are at Stage 11, meaning they are testing the safety and the feasibility of the treatment.  The next stage is to conduct a much larger trial with a greater number of participants to confirm the initial trial findings – that participants found the experience helped change their relationship with alcohol by not focusing their thoughts on it such that cravings for another drink were diminished. 

Likely future of Ketamine as part of alcohol addiction rehabilitation

It is clear that these initial medical trials of Ketamine use are taking a significant step towards investigating a new approach to assisting with alcohol relapse prevention.  However, the key is that people are not given small doses of ketamine outside of a clinical setting and equally importantly it has to be coupled with therapy.

With or without Ketamine there has to be a willingness to make changes to our personal thinking and behaviour and this will involve attending AA meetings and ongoing therapy via weekly Aftercare after leaving residential alcohol addiction  treatment. It is also important to work on a programme of Recovery.  All these things are possible and achievable and lead us to a better and sober life. 

There will undoubtedly be many who will question taking an addictive drug within the Recovery process, even if it is taken in a clinical environment, as it is being taken long term on a daily basis. It is possible that this could lead to a dependency on a drug that is supposedly trying to help us. It could also lead to a fear of stopping using it as we could believe that without it we could potentially relapse.