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What Is Dipsomania?

Dipsomania was once used to mean an uncontrollable craving for alcohol.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 26 July 2014
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Dipsomania is an outdated clinical term once used in reference to alcoholism and alcohol abuse problems that did not quite meet the current diagnostic criteria for alcoholism. This term emerged in the 19th century and fell out of favor in the 20th as clinicians reformed a number of clinical terms. It can still be seen in the context of older clinical texts and references, as well as books set in that period, when characters would naturally have known excessive drinking and alcohol dependence as dipsomania.

Historically, doctors recognized a difference between patients who might drink recreationally while retaining control of their drinking habits, and patients who developed a dangerous relationship with alcohol. A patient with dipsomania could experience intense cravings and a loss of control, where she would drink even if she knew that she should not. Such patients also developed a tolerance and could drink large volumes of alcohol before becoming intoxicated. They also developed symptoms of dependence and could experience withdrawal if they stopped drinking completely and abruptly.

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Doctors often considered dipsomania a disease of the lower classes or of dissolute members of other classes who had been corrupted in some way. In the models of illness of the time, the condition was also often perceived as the fault of poor living conditions and personal failures on the part of the patient. Clinicians would point to other members of the same class who could use alcohol responsibly as evidence that dipsomania was the result of a lack of moral rigor.

At the end of the 19th century, however, clinicians began to recognize that dipsomania was a complex condition. An inheritable link could be observed, where some families clearly struggled with alcohol abuse more than others. Doctors also noted that success in treatment could depend on family history as well as providing adequate support for the patient. While chronic drunkenness or bouts of extreme intoxication interspersed with periods of sobriety were still considered morally undesirable, doctors recognized that some patients were at a disadvantage when it came to avoiding alcoholism and seeking treatment.

As with other outdated clinical terms, the precise meaning of “dipsomania” in a text can be a subject of debate. Some doctors referred to conditions that are not technically alcoholism as dipsomania and the term was often used as a catchall to describe any patient who frequently got drunk. This included patients who did not exhibit signs of loss of control or dependence. The development of more precise diagnostic terms and criteria was a significant development in the treatment of medical conditions, as it allowed doctors to follow set treatment standards tailored to specific medical issues.

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