Is the construct of relapse heuristic, and does it advance alcohol use disorder clinical practice?

Stephen A. Maisto, Katie Witkiewitz, Dezarie Moskal, Adam D. Wilson

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

36 Scopus citations


Objective: Alcohol use disorder (AUD) relapse is a construct that has been of major clinical and research interest but has been inconsistently defined. The purpose of this study was to review the definitions of AUD relapse that have been used in clinical research as a basis for drawing conclusions about its heuristic value. Method: A systematic review of the literature was conducted on empirical studies that (a) were published in peer-reviewed journals, (b) were published between 2010 and 2015, (c) were written in English, and (d) provided a definition of alcohol relapse (or lapse) that was used in the study. Results: The review yielded 139 individual studies that met inclusion criteria. The studies showed wide variability in how relapse was defined and interpreted in the literature, and there was little direct empirical or theoretical rationale provided for the definitions of relapse that were chosen. Furthermore, the concept of AUD relapse as a discrete state is not consistent with the empirical literature on the clinical course of alcohol consumption. Conclusions: We conclude that the heuristic value of AUD relapse as currently studied is low. An alternative approach that embeds the construct in theory and data on the clinical course of alcohol consumption and aligns with current trends in healthcare would seem to have a better chance of improving AUD clinical decision-making and knowledge about AUD in general.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)849-858
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of studies on alcohol and drugs
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 2016

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Toxicology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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