Those considering treatment for a drinking problem naturally may wonder about the success rate of alcohol recovery as it relates to their own prospects for finding freedom from the drug. The answer to that question is nuanced, and it requires a closer look at alcohol relapse rates, long-term treatment outcomes, and common arguments raised by critics of rehab.
Alcohol Abuse and Rates of Relapse
Some bad press in recent years about the so-called “revolving door” of alcohol rehab treatment has cited high rates of alcohol relapse as evidence that the success rate of recovery from alcohol addiction is low. On this same basis, critics of alcohol rehab have made the case that alcohol treatment is useless. One argument even likened alcohol use disorder to the common cold, suggesting that like a cold, the disease goes away on its own without treatment.
Such statements are harmful, because they suggest that alcohol addiction (like the common cold) is not treatable—when in fact the disease is very treatable. And sadly those likely to suffer the most from these mischaracterizations of alcohol use disorder are probably the very people who have the most to gain from getting help for a drinking problem. In their case, a compulsive pattern of drinking has continued despite negative consequences—among them, real physiological changes to the brain—with the result that daily life has become unmanageable.
Needless to say, the common cold is a different phenomenon altogether.
A closer equivalent to alcohol use disorder would be other chronic medical illnesses involving high rates of relapse, such as diabetes, hypertension and asthma. Alcoholism and alcohol abuse evidence similarly high rates of relapse (in the 40 to 60 percent range).
And the studies suggest that these rates of relapse do indeed decrease with treatment interventions. A study published in the journal Addiction compared rates of relapse between problem drinkers who received alcohol treatment and those who did not, for example, and found that the rate of successful short-term abstinence among the first group (those treated for alcohol abuse) roughly doubled the rate of successful short-term abstinence among the second group (those not treated for alcohol abuse). In other words, the rate of alcohol relapse significantly decreased with treatment—at least during short-term recovery.
Long-Term Treatment Outcomes for Alcohol Use Disorder
These treatment outcomes and their link to higher success rates in early recovery are not in themselves a cut-and-dry predictor of long-term success in recovery. However, they are evidence that alcohol treatment can reduce the risk of relapse and lengthen abstinence at a time when vulnerability to relapse is highest (during early recovery). That’s important to note, because the studies also show that just one year of successful sobriety greatly improves one’s longer-term recovery prospects.
Still other research shines a light on the benefits of long-term treatment for alcohol use disorder. Findings from an eight-year follow-up of treated and untreated problem drinkers found that at the eight-year mark, those who received help—and had gotten help quickly—fared better. What this study did not mention, but what’s also important to note, is that those who seek alcohol treatment generally exhibit the greatest severity of addiction.
Success Rate for Alcohol Recovery—and Influencing Factors
An exact success rate for alcohol recovery is hard to pin down for various reasons. For example, survey results released just this year suggest that more than one third (35.9 percent) of those diagnosed with alcohol dependence go on to “fully recover” the following year. (And those in treatment and in 12-step groups may hear similar estimates for the success rate of alcohol recovery: roughly 30 percent, or one in three people.)
Such figures are at best rough estimates, for the reason that a host of individual variables compromise the accuracy of efforts to quantify success rates across a large population of drinkers. Consider the above survey, for example. The 35 percent figure included “low-risk drinkers,” who are less likely to seek treatment for an alcohol problem in the first place; and those surveyed were also largely college-educated—another factor that is linked to higher success rates. In fact, a separate study found that when it comes to success in recovery, treatment is a notable equalizer, giving those without a college education a leg-up next to their college-educated peers.
The reality is that so many individual variables factor into the success of alcohol recovery that it’s hard to speak in terms of one universal rate of success. A strong network of support, including close family and friends, increases one’s chances of successful recovery. So does marriage when both spouses are in recovery and/or when they have received behavioral counseling (i.e., treatment).
On the other hand, other individual social and medical factors can impede recovery and pose obstacles to success. One common impediment to successful recovery, for example, is the presence of an untreated co-occurring disorder, or “dual diagnosis.” In such cases, diagnosis and treatment can be even more critical to finding success in alcohol recovery.