Therapy of alcohol withdrawal syndrome in intensive care unit patients following trauma: results of a prospective, randomized trial

Crit Care Med. 1996 Mar;24(3):414-22. doi: 10.1097/00003246-199603000-00009.


Objectives: To assess the effect of three different alcohol withdrawal therapy regimens in traumatized chronic alcoholic patients with respect to the duration of mechanical ventilation and the frequency of pneumonia and cardiac disorders during their intensive care unit (ICU) stay.

Design: A prospective, randomized, blinded, controlled clinical trial.

Setting: A university hospital ICU.

Patients: Multiple-injured alcohol-dependent patients (n=180) transferred to the ICU after admission to the emergency room and operative management. A total of 180 patients were included in the study; however, 21 patients were excluded from the study after assignment.

Interventions: Patients who developed actual alcohol withdrawal syndrome were randomized to one of the following treatment regimens: flunitrazepam/clonidine (n=54); chlormethiazole/haloperidol (n=50); or flunitrazepam/haloperidol (n=55). The need for administration of medication was determined, using a validated measure of the severity of alcohol withdrawal (Revised Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol Scale).

Measurements and main results: The duration of mechanical ventilation and major intercurrent complications, such as pneumonia, sepsis, cardiac disorders, bleeding disorders, and death, were documented. Patients did not differ significantly between groups regarding age, Revised Trauma and Injury Severity Score and Acute Physiology and Chronic Health Evaluation II score on admission. In all except four patients in the flunitrazepam/clonidine group, who continued to hallucinate, the Revised Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol Scale decreased to <20 after initiation of therapy. ICU stay did not significantly differ between groups (p=.1669). However, mechanical ventilation was significantly prolonged in the chlormethiazole/haloperidol group (p=.0315) due to an increased frequency of pneumonia (p=.0414). Cardiac complications were significantly (p=.0047) increased in the flunitrazepam/clonidine group.

Conclusions: There was some advantage in the flunitrazepam/clonidine regimen with respect to pneumonia and the necessity for mechanical ventilation. However, four (7%) patients had to be excluded from the study due to ongoing hallucinations during therapy. Also, cardiac complications were increased in this group. Thus, flunitrazepam/haloperidol should be preferred in patients with cardiac or pulmonary risk. Further studies are required to determine which therapy should be considered.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Alcohol Deterrents / administration & dosage
  • Critical Care*
  • Drug Therapy, Combination
  • Ethanol / adverse effects*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Multiple Trauma / complications
  • Multiple Trauma / therapy*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Respiration, Artificial
  • Substance Withdrawal Syndrome / complications
  • Substance Withdrawal Syndrome / drug therapy*
  • Trauma Severity Indices
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Alcohol Deterrents
  • Ethanol