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Baclofen is a muscle relaxant and anti-spasmodic medication approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in November 1977. It is used primarily to treat muscle spasticity in patients suffering from musculoskeletal conditions such as cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis. Muscle spasticity refers to increased muscle tone, involuntary spasms and rigidity often caused by disorders of the central nervous system. The medication is also thought to aid alcohol abstinence in alcohol-dependent patients.
Baclofen is similar to the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a chemical that occurs naturally in the body and allows information to pass between nerves. Baclofen is believed to inhibit inappropriate information and responses being transmitted between nerves in the portion of the brain that controls the skeletal muscles. By inhibiting these responses, the drug allows rigid muscles to relax and reduces spasms, although no positive effects have been found when the medicine is used to treat rheumatic disorders.
A trial was conducted to assess whether baclofen had any effect on alcohol dependence. The 84 trial participants suffering from liver cirrhosis and alcohol dependence were randomly assigned either placeboes or baclofen. The treatment was administered three times a day, and the baclofen dosage was increased from 5 mg per day to 10 mg per day after one week. The trial lasted for 12 weeks.
During the 12-week trial, abstinence was taken to mean less than 14 drinks a week and less than four drinks a day. Results showed that alcohol abstinence was achieved and sustained for a significantly higher percentage of patients who received the baclofen compared with those who received the placebo. The mean average of cumulative alcohol abstinence achieved in patients who were given baclofen was 62.8 days; the mean average for those given the placebo was 30.8 days.
The trial established that the level of alcohol abstinence achieved with the use of baclofen was significant enough to reduce further liver damage. Baclofen, unlike many drugs that aid alcohol abstinence, has little effect on the liver because it passes through the body mainly unchanged, with a liver metabolism of only 15 percent. This means that patients already suffering from a diseased liver would be able to take baclofen without increasing damage to the liver, although further trials are required to establish the long-term effects of baclofen in patients with alcohol dependence.
Baclofen should only be taken on the advice of a health professional, and the dosage should never be changed without the advice of a doctor. If baclofen has been taken for a long period, sudden withdrawal can result in hallucinations and seizures. Because of the low level of liver metabolism, baclofen is excreted through the kidneys primarily unchanged. This means renal function may be adversely affected, especially if taken for long periods.