Risk Factors for Alcohol Relapse Following Orthotopic Liver Transplantation: A Systematic Review

James K. Rustad, Theodore A. Stern, Maithri Prabhakar, Dominique Musselman

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

45 Scopus citations


Background: Each year, 5000-6000 individuals undergo orthotopic liver transplantation (OLT) in the United States, and of these, nearly 18% have alcoholic liver disease. Relapse to alcohol occurs in more than 40% of patients with OLT for alcoholic liver disease. Objectives: We sought to identify factors that predict relapse to alcohol or medication nonadherence following OLT in patients with alcoholic liver disease and to review what randomized clinical interventions have addressed these factors following OLT. Our hypothesis was that there would be factors before and after OLT that predict relapse to alcohol following OLT, and that these, if targeted, might improve sobriety and associated outcomes of adherence with medications and appointments. Methods: We performed a review (focusing on articles published since 2004) with PubMed and MEDLINE searches using the following search terms: liver transplantation, recidivism, alcohol relapse, and predictors of alcohol relapse. We supplemented the online searches with manual reviews of article reference lists and selected relevant articles for further review by author consensus. Results: In largely white populations, prospective studies document that shorter length of pretransplantation sobriety is a significant predictor of time to first drink and time to binge use. Presence of psychiatric comorbidity, high score on standardized High-risk Alcoholism Relapse Scale, and diagnosis of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fourth Edition) alcohol dependence are predictive of posttransplantation alcohol relapse. Pretransplantation alcohol use history variables (e.g., family history of alcoholism) reliably discriminate between complete abstainers and those who drink, while medical and psychosocial characteristics at early post-liver transplantation period (e.g., more bodily pain) maximally discriminate patterns of alcohol use. Alcoholic individuals with early-onset, rapidly accelerating moderate use and early-onset, continuously increasing heavy use have more than double the prevalence of steatohepatitis or rejection on biopsy and graft failure and more frequent mortality resulting from recurrent alcoholic liver disease than late-onset (i.e., peak of heaviest drinking at 6. y posttransplantation) alcohol users do. Fortunately, pretransplantation screening combined with a structured pretransplantation management program and a 12-step program attendance reduced recidivism. No randomized clinical trials have been performed that target pretransplantation risk factors in individuals with alcoholic liver disease before or after OLT to improve post-OLT outcomes. Conclusions: Recent research findings suggest that screening can reveal individuals who are vulnerable to alcohol relapse and targeted intervention can prevent their relapse to alcohol. Based on existing addiction treatments (e.g., relapse prevention plan construction), randomized clinical trials tailored to post-OLT patients should be conducted to improve their survival and quality of life.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)21-35
Number of pages15
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Applied Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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