Evaluation of phenobarbital based approach in treating patient with alcohol withdrawal syndrome: A systematic review and meta-analysis

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date



The American journal of emergency medicine






Alcohol; Alcohol withdrawal syndrome; Benzodiazepine; Ethanol; Phenobarbital


BACKGROUND: Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome (AWS) among patients with chronic and heavy alcohol consumption can range from mild to severe and is associated with high morbidity and mortality. Currently, treating AWS with benzodiazepines is the standard of care, but phenobarbital has also been hypothesized to be an effective first-line treatment due to its pharmacological properties and mechanism of action. We conducted a meta-analysis to review relevant literature and compare the clinical outcomes for patients diagnosed with AWS in ED and ICU settings. METHODS: We performed a literature search in in the PubMed, Scopus, and Web of Science databases from inception to June 30, 2022. Randomized trials and observational (prospective or retrospective) studies were eligible if they included adult patients who presented in the ED and were treated in the ED and/or the intensive care unit (ICU) with a diagnosis of AWS. The primary outcome was the rate of intubation among patients who received phenobarbital, compared with benzodiazepines. Secondary outcomes such as rates of seizures, hospital, and ICU length of stay (LOS), also were included. The PROSPERO registration is CRD42022318862. RESULTS: We included twelve studies (1934 patients) in our analysis. Of the 1934 patients in these studies, 765 (41.7%) were treated with phenobarbital and 1169 (58.3%) were treated with other modalities for alcohol withdrawal. Treating AWS patients with phenobarbital did not affect their risk for intubation, as the risk for intubation was similar between the phenobarbital and the control group (RR 0.70, 95% CI 0.36-1.38, P = 0.31). In addition, patients who were treated with phenobarbital were found to have similar rates of seizures (RR 0.73, 95% CI 0.29-1.89) and length of stay in the hospital (Standardized Mean Difference -0.02, 95% CI -0.26, 0.21) or the ICU (SMD -0.02, 95% CI -0.21, 0.25) when compared with patients receiving benzodiazepines. CONCLUSIONS: Management of patients with AWS with phenobarbital is associated with similar rates of intubation, length of stay in the ICU, or length of stay in the hospital as treatment with benzodiazepines. However, due to the inclusion of mostly observational studies and a significant level of heterogeneity among the studies assessed in this review, additional trials with strong methodology are needed.


Emergency Medicine