In clinical psychiatry, what does the term "dipsomania" mean?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The word dipsomania is derived from the Greek words dipso-, meaning thirst, and of course -mania, which refers to a kind of uncontrollable emotional excitement. In short, then, dipsomania is defined as sporadic bursts of uncontrollable cravings for alcohol. 

The term first became famous rather by accident. In the preface of a medical book written by Dr. C. von  Brühl-Cramer, one translator took the doctor's word, trunksucht, and translated it as dipsomania. That is the word that has "stuck" both in the medical and the psychiatric worlds as the accepted term for this phenomenon.

Brühl-Cramer characterized dipsomania as being different than chronic alcoholism. Those suffering from this illness are habitual drinkers but in a less predictable way. Dipsomaniacs imbibe alcohol in acute cycles; in other words, they are often able to live relatively normal lives until they are struck by a manic craving for alcohol. Then they are compelled to drink until the mania passes, going on to live their lives in as normal a fashion as possible. Of course Brühl-Cramer also notes that "normal" life for these sporadic drinkers is often plagued with dissociation from emotional or other connections. And eventually, of course, the problems associated with this kind of behavior are certain to grow and worsen.

This work by Brühl-Cramer was helpful in addressing the concerns about alcohol at a time, the nineteenth century, when habitual drunkenness was a serious social and economic concern. 

Brühl-Cramer, in this research and this book, were

part of an effort of medical professionals and reformers to change attitudes about habitual drunkenness from being a criminally punishable vice to being a medically treatable disease. 

Based on this "diagnosis" of a medical condition, the medical and psychiatric professionals were eventually able to transform the way society thought about alcohol abuse and the alcoholics who abused it. As a result, by the end of that century a new awareness about the dire need for systemic prevention and cures for social illnesses like this one was born.

This specific term is still used in some settings, such as movies or books about dissolute characters who live "normal" lives but then ruin them with their manic drinking episodes (think Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas). More often, however, we familiarly call this behavior binge drinking. Technically this is probably not correct, as drinking with the sole purpose of getting drunk might be a choice rather than a compulsion, which is the case for those suffering from dipsomania.

In any case, dipsomania is an identifiable disease by both the medical and mental health professions. 

Sources:
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summerdayz | Student, Grade 10 | (Level 1) eNoter

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Dipsomania is the reoccurring urge to drink alcohol in excess. the easier way to think about it would be alcoholism, but that doesn't quite cover it. it tends to be more psychological than alcoholism, resulting in short, uncontrollable urges to drink that may spring up out of nowhere. despite a quick struggle, the temptations are usually irresistible. The episode can last for days or even a couple weeks, forcing the victim to drink alcohol or whatever tempting liquid may be found near to them at the given time, safe for consumption or not. Dipsomania is also different from alcoholism in that it isn't just a craving for alcohol, but the thirst for any self-harming and dangerous liquid.

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