Anticonvulsants for alcohol withdrawal

  • Review
  • Intervention




Alcohol withdrawal syndrome is a cluster of symptoms that occurs in alcohol-dependent people after cessation or reduction in alcohol use. This systematic review focuses on the evidence of anticonvulsants' use in the treatment of alcohol withdrawal symptoms.


To evaluate the effectiveness and safety of anticonvulsants in the treatment of alcohol withdrawal.

Search strategy

We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (The Cochrane Library Issue 3, 2004); MEDLINE (1966 to October 2004); EMBASE (1988 to October 2004) and EU-PSI PSI-Tri database with no language and publication restrictions and references of articles.

Selection criteria

All randomized controlled trials examining the effectiveness, safety and overall risk-benefit of an anticonvulsant in comparison with a placebo or other pharmacological treatment or another anticonvulsant were considered.

Data collection and analysis

The authors independently assessed trial quality extracted data.

Main results

Forty-eight studies, involving 3610 people were included. Despite the considerable number of randomised controlled trials, there was a variety of outcomes and of different rating scales that led to a limited quantitative synthesis of data. For the anticonvulsant versus placebo comparison, therapeutic success tended to be more common among the anticonvulsant-treated patients (relative risk (RR) 1.32; 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.92 to 1.91), and anticonvulsant tended to show a protective benefit against seizures (RR 0.57; 95% CI 0.27 to 1.19), but no effect reached formal statistical significance. For the anticonvulsant versus other drug comparison, CIWA-Ar score showed non-significant differences for the anticonvulsants compared to the other drugs at the end of treatment (weighted mean difference (WMD) -0.73; 95% CI -1.76 to 0.31). For the subgroup analysis of carbamazepine versus benzodiazepine, a statistically significant protective effect was found for the anticonvulsant (WMD -1.04; 95% CI -1.89 to -0.20), p = 0.02), but this was based on only 260 randomised participants. There was a non-significant decreased incidence of seizures (RR 0.50; 95% CI 0.18 to 1.34) favouring the patients that were treated with anticonvulsants than other drugs, and side-effects tended to be less common in the anticonvulsant-group (RR 0.56; 95% CI 0.31 to 1.02).

Authors' conclusions

It is not possible to draw definite conclusions about the effectiveness and safety of anticonvulsants in alcohol withdrawal, because of the heterogeneity of the trials both in interventions and the assessment of outcomes. The extremely small mortality rate in all these studies is reassuring, but data on other safety outcomes are sparse and fragmented.

Plain language summary

There are limited data on anticonvulsants versus placebo for alcohol withdrawal syndrome, while comparisons with other drugs show no clear differences.

This Cochrane review summarizes evidence from forty-eight randomised controlled trials evaluating the effectiveness and safety of anticonvulsants in the treatment of alcohol withdrawal symptoms. There are limited data comparing anticonvulsants versus placebo and no clear differences between anticonvulsants and other drugs in the rates of therapeutic success. Data on safety outcomes are sparse and fragmented. There is a need for larger, well-designed studies in this field.