Alcohol Rehab – How Effective is it?

Alcohol rehabilitation (rehab) is a common recommendation for people affected by serious drinking-related problems. Without proper care, alcoholism and alcohol abuse can exact widespread damage to every aspect of your daily life.

Alcoholic - Group of people sits in therapy listening to an alcoholic talk about their recovery.

Before you enter rehab, you may wonder about the effectiveness of alcohol treatment programs. Do such programs actually work? The short answer is yes, but context is important. Treatment of alcohol use disorders shows a similar level of effectiveness as the treatment of other chronic medical conditions. Alcohol rehab works for a significant percentage of people who enroll in treatment, and weighing AA versus rehab can help you look at exactly what form of treatment is right for your needs.

However, a range of factors can have an impact on the outcome for each alcoholic. Let’s take a closer look at this important issue and get a better idea of the potential results of rehabilitation.

How Does an Alcoholic Steer Clear of Problems in the Short-Term?

When discussing alcohol rehab success rates, a good starting point is to identify the number of people who relapse shortly after completing treatment. (Relapse is the term experts use to describe a return to a harmful pattern of substance use by someone in recovery.) There is no single study that provides a comprehensive view of short-term, alcohol-related relapses. However, many researchers have explored the issue in substantial detail.

One recent example comes from a small-scale study analysis published in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism. The research team conducting this analysis found that about 42 percent of those in rehab managed to remain relapse-free for a 20-week period following the beginning of treatment. In other words, while relapses were relatively common, many people experienced short-term benefits from their time in rehab. For an alcoholic the short term success is important.

24 Hour Alcohol Rehab Hotline – Get Help Now

How Does an Alcoholic Avoid Problems Long-Term?

Longer-term success rates for alcohol rehabilitation are significantly more difficult to research accurately than short-term rates. It is easy for an alcoholic to hide their struggle with addiction since alcohol is legal. Some of the best available information on this topic comes from an ongoing federal project called NESARC (National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions). NESARC takes a periodic, nationwide look at the outcomes of people recovering from alcoholism and/or alcohol abuse.

The latest available results from this survey show that long-term success rates vary greatly among three categories of alcohol usage:

  • Returned to use (relapse): Those who return to a risky pattern of drinking despite their known alcohol problems.
  • Modified use: Those who still drink, but cut their intake down to a less risky level.
  • Abstinent: Those who quit drinking entirely.

A little over half of people who return to risky drinking behaviors will relapse back into a diagnosable state of alcohol misuse within three years. Among people who make significant cutbacks in their drinking levels, the relapse rate falls to about 27 percent. And among those alcoholics who stop drinking altogether, the rate falls to 7 percent. The dramatic decrease in diagnosed alcohol use disorders with modified drinking and abstinence explains why abstinence is typically viewed as the recommended goal for people going through alcohol rehab.

Does Relapse Really Mean That Rehab Is Not Effective?

The statistics on the short- and long-term outcomes of alcohol rehab point to a stark overall reality. Namely, about 40 percent to 60 percent of all people recovering from alcohol addiction will relapse at some point. This percentage range holds true for people addicted to other substances. If you considered these facts by themselves, you might think that the average success rate of rehabilitation makes the process not worth the effort.

However, this is far from the case. There is an  important context to these statistics: alcohol use disorders, like other addictive disorders, tend to follow the same patterns as other chronic medical conditions. Many chronic medical conditions — which are not cured but managed by both providers and patients —  have similar relapse rates. For example, asthma relapse rates hover around 52% in some studies, and relapse rates for diabetes are above 35%, even after a major intervention.

Addiction specialists are well aware of the risks of relapse. They also understand that relapses, while serious, don’t have to derail your chances for eventually achieving a stable recovery. In addition, experts in the field have developed recommendations to help you avoid returning to use. Perhaps the most important thing you can do is learn the telltale signs of a potential relapse. While they differ from person to person, these signs can include things such as:

  • Dreaming about drinking while you sleep
  • Reminiscing, either by yourself or with other people, about the “good times” you had while drinking
  • Feeling like you have enough control over your condition to start consuming alcohol again

24 Hour Alcoholic Treatment Hotline – Get Help Now

Additional steps you can take to prevent a relapse during your recovery include:

  • Speaking to your doctor, therapist or non-drinking friends about any urges you have to drink
  • Avoiding places or situations that you know increased your desire to drink in the past
  • Reviewing the factors that may have contributed to any past instances of alcohol relapse

If a relapse does occur, the best thing for an alcoholic to do is to seek help immediately. Your doctor or therapist can help you keep the length of the episode as short as possible. In turn, this will make it easier to get back on track and resume your recovery.

The Importance of an Individualized Treatment Plan for Rehab Success

With all this in mind, how can you maximize the odds of receiving the greatest possible benefit from alcohol rehabilitation? In order to find the highest success rate rehab, for an alcoholic you must find a program that offers individualized treatment plans.

Why is this true? Simply put, not all approaches to alcohol treatment work as well for everyone who enrolls in a program. To achieve the best results, doctors must do two main things. First, they must use methods proven to provide a real benefit for at least some people with alcohol problems. In addition, they must determine which of the proven treatment options will work for each person receiving help.

There are two types of evidence-based treatment for people with diagnosable drinking problems: behavioral talk therapy and medication. Available talk therapy options include:

  • Motivational enhancement therapy
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Behavioral counseling for families and couples, with more intensive offerings at couple rehabs
  • Contingency management
  • Mindfulness-based relapse prevention
  • Brief intervention counseling sessions

Each of these techniques provides its own benefits, and they are often combined with each other.

The approved medication options for alcohol-related treatment are acamprosate, naltrexone and disulfiram. The way these medications work is extremely diverse, but they all have similar rates of effectiveness in alcohol use disorder treatment.

To maximize the effectiveness of substance treatment programs, doctors must also look for additional potential obstacles to treatment. One major issue to address is the presence of any other type of substance addiction or abuse. A second common problem is the presence of a serious mental illness such as major depression or bipolar disorder. You can still recover if these conditions affect you. However, it may be more challenging to create a productive treatment program.

24 Hour Alcoholism Treatment Hotline – Get Help Now

If you think you or someone you know is an alcoholic and needs help Find Addiction Rehabs is here. Call anytime 7 days a week 24 hours a day.


Engel K, Schaefer M, Stickel A, Binder H, Heinz A, Richter C. (2016). The Role of Psychological Distress in Relapse Prevention of Alcohol Addiction. Can High Scores on the SCL-90-R Predict Alcohol Relapse? Alcohol and Alcoholism,  51(1),27–31.

Hasin D., Grant, B. (2015). The National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC) Waves 1 and 2: Review and summary of findings. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology. 50(11), 1609–1640.

Dawson, D. A., Goldstein, R. B. and Grant, B. F. (2007). Rates and Correlates of Relapse Among Individuals in Remission From DSM‐IV Alcohol Dependence: A 3‐Year Follow‐Up. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 31: 2036-2045

Wu, T. J., Wu, C. F., Lee, Y. L., Hsiue, T. R., Guo, Y. L. (2014). Asthma incidence, remission, relapse and persistence: a population-based study in southern Taiwan. Respiratory Research, 15(1), 135.

Arterburn, D. E., Bogart, A., Sherwood, N. E., Sidney, S., Coleman, K. J., Haneuse, S., Selby, J. (2013). A multisite study of long-term remission and relapse of type 2 diabetes mellitus following gastric bypass. Obesity Surgery, 23(1), 93–102.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. Drugs, Brains and Behavior – The Science of Addiction: Treatment and Recovery.                                                        


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The Next Step… Toward a Better Life                                                                                              

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism – Alcohol Research & Health: Advances in Alcoholism Treatment.                                                  

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. NIAAA Alcohol Treatment Navigator: Frequently Asked Questions – Searching for Alcohol Treatment.