Oct 23, 2020


Interviewer: What is the fine line between a few drinks to relax or blow off steam and a potential alcohol abuse problem?

Dr. Troy Madsen is an emergency room doctor at University of Utah Health. Dr. Madsen, I hear that doctors have a series of questions that they ask patients, and it's pretty accurate at indicating if somebody has a potential alcohol use problem.

Troy: We do have a screening tool we use. We all learn this in medical school, and it is something that we will then use in our practice, is a quick screen to say, "Does this individual potentially have an alcohol use disorder that we should look into further and ask some more questions and see, 'Well, how much are you drinking? Do you need some help?'"

This is a tool that's called the CAGE questionnaire. So the first C, the C stands for cut down. Have you ever felt you need to cut down on your drinking? The A is annoyed. Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking? So, for each of these, you get a point if you answer yes. G is for guilty, G of CAGE. Have you ever felt guilty about drinking? And E is for an eye-opener. Have you ever felt you need a drink first thing in the morning or an eye-opener to steady your nerves or get rid of a hangover?

Now, if you answer yes to two of those questions, so if you have a score of 2 or higher, it has a 93% sensitivity for identifying excessive drinking and a 91% sensitivity for identifying alcoholism. That means it's a pretty good tool for potentially identifying individuals who may be needing some help, again, just answering yes to two of the four CAGE questions.

Interviewer: When you say over 90% accuracy that that person may have a drinking problem, this is research supported?

Troy: It is. Multiple studies. This CAGE questionnaire has been around for many, many years, decades. They've got studies going back into the '80s on this. So it's something that's been studied over many, many years, many, many people.

If you're answering yes to two or more of these . . . let's say you've had people tell you, "You really should cut down," and let's say people are critical of you, you get annoyed by it, if you've got two of those four, that's potentially a sign that maybe you need some help. Maybe you do have an alcohol use disorder.

Interviewer: What if you just have one? Is that supported by the research? Does that necessarily mean anything?

Troy: So that's considered a negative screen. So, if you just had one . . . let's say you felt guilty about your drinking, so you got the one point there, but you didn't answer yes to any of those others. It's like, "Well, no one has ever told me I should cut down. I've never really felt annoyed. I don't really need an eye-opener in the morning to take care of a hangover," so if you just get the one, technically, that doesn't get you a point.

Obviously, there are a whole lot of other variables that play into this, like who you are hanging out with. If you're hanging out with people who are drinking a lot, they're probably not criticizing your drinking and you're probably not getting annoyed by it. So it's one of those tools where it's not a perfect tool.

The advantage of this tool is just something quick that we can do as healthcare providers. It's a quick screen. Just talking through those questions took us maybe 30 seconds. And if you're getting a score of 2 or higher, it doesn't mean you have an alcohol use disorder. It just means, "Let's do some additional screening to see if that's potentially an issue."

Interviewer: It's pretty amazing how accurate the CAGE questionnaire is, but is that where doctors stop, or are there some additional questions that a doctor might ask, or is there an additional resource that a patient could go to on their own to find out a little bit more information?

Troy: There's something called the AUDIT questionnaire, and if you search for that, you can find it online, but that goes through in more detail about getting into exactly how many drinks you have per week, how many you have at once, and getting into the whole binge drinking thing.

And some of those CAGE questions, it kind of goes through some of those again as part of it, but it's a 10-question questionnaire and that really then breaks things down by a score to say "Are you a medium risk? Are you a high risk? Are you at a point where addiction is likely?"

So it's an additional questionnaire. We don't need to go through all the questions on it, but I think that can be helpful as the next step to potentially see, "Is there an issue that I should get some help for, or where are things right now?"

Interviewer: And if somebody has taken the test and they're thinking, "Wow, maybe I should look at getting some help or I would like to get some help," what would the next step be? Because that seems like it could be intimidating.

Troy: If you're looking for inpatient treatment where you need inpatient detoxification and you need medically-assisted treatment to be able to just reduce your drinking or cut off from drinking, it's something you can talk to your doctor about. I think, regardless, I'd talk to your doctor, but they can help set those things up for you. There are many community resources available for that as well.

In some people, it's just the sort of thing where they just reach a point and they just say, "I need help, and I need it now, and I need to make this happen, and I don't have time to wait on that." We see those individuals in the ER on a regular basis. You can come in. We can talk to you about options. In some cases, we admit people to the hospital for this if they are in withdrawal and they have severe symptoms. I'd say I admit people for this . . . it's a weekly thing for me where I'm admitting patients for this.

So, with any substance use disorder, I think the important thing is just reaching out for the help. And I think that's the hardest part, taking that initial step, but if you can reach out to family and say, "Hey, I've got an issue. I need help," I think that's . . . it's a huge thing just to be able to do that. Then you take it from there and you'll get the help you need as long as you just keep pushing forward.

Sign Up for Weekly Health Updates

Weekly emails of the latest news from The Scope Radio.

For Patients