Does Alcohol Help With Pain? Crucial Truth About Self-Medicating
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Last Updated - 6/17/2022View our editorial policy
Alcohol can reduce pain, but it’s important to know the risks. People have used alcohol to relieve pain for thousands of years — wine for a sour stomach is even mentioned in the Bible. Modern laboratory studies confirm that alcohol reduces pain in humans and animals; however, relying on alcohol to alleviate pain places people at risk for several harmful health consequences, including addiction, liver damage and increased risk of accidents. Still, recent research suggests that as many as 28% of people experiencing chronic pain turn to alcohol to alleviate their suffering.
Another source found that more men than women chose alcohol to medicate chronic pain and that those with a higher income chose alcohol as a method of pain relief. No matter your gender or financial status, you may have the subconscious association that having some drinks will take the edge of chronic pain away. While there may be short-term benefits, there are also serious risks to consider.
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Potential Benefits of Alcohol for Pain Relief
Alcohol provides pain relief, reducing pain levels by about 25%. The more alcohol is consumed, the more effect it has on pain. While there are many potential downsides to using alcohol to relieve pain, studies indicate that it has an analgesic effect. Some people may use alcohol to treat their pain when no other method is available for pain management. While alcohol reduces pain, it is important to note that medical professionals do not recommend using alcohol as a pain management tool.
Alcohol and the Central Nervous System
The main way alcohol reduces pain is by inhibiting signals in your brain. This includes signals that tell your brain pain is occurring. Suppressing brain signaling has many different effects; however, its effect on pain signals is the main way that it helps relieve pain.
Endorphins and Alcohol-Induced Pain Relief
Alcohol releases chemicals in the brain called endorphins. These chemicals are “reward” chemicals, rewarding the brain for engaging in a certain behavior and encouraging that behavior in the future. While these chemicals are what ultimately lead to addiction, they can also play a role in pain relief. Endorphins do not reduce pain themselves but can help to provide a pleasurable feeling that can distract you from pain and help balance some of its unpleasantness with a pleasurable feeling. Endorphins help with pain by providing emotional support during pain.
Perception of Alcohol as a Coping Mechanism
Alcohol provides a means of temporarily escaping problems. This makes it a potential coping mechanism people use to escape emotionally-difficult problems. Pain can be emotionally difficult to cope with. Alcohol offers a means of dealing with the difficulty pain creates and can be perceived as providing a temporary escape from the emotional strain and stress that pain causes.
Risks and Limitations of Alcohol for Pain Relief
While some people use alcohol for pain relief, this is not a safe or effective solution. Risks and limitations are associated with using alcohol for pain relief, and they can significantly outweigh any temporary benefits, especially when alcohol is used for a prolonged period or to treat chronic pain.
Alcohol Dependence and Addiction
When you use alcohol for prolonged periods, alcohol dependence can develop. Alcohol dependence occurs when your brain becomes used to having alcohol consistently in your bloodstream and adjusts its sensitivity accordingly. As your brain adjusts to alcohol, it depends on alcohol being present to function normally.
Additionally, alcohol can cause the release of endorphins in the brain that create a sensation of pleasure. This encourages the brain to use alcohol again, further reinforcing the behavior. This leads to a cycle of continued use that results in addiction.
Long-Term Health Problems From Alcohol
While alcohol use can help relieve pain, alcohol can create many long-term health problems. This includes increasing the risk of cancer, liver disease, kidney problems, brain damage and other conditions. These long-term conditions are far more harmful than the temporary benefit alcohol can have on your pain.
Interaction With Medication and Other Substances
Alcohol can interact with other medications, increasing the risk of side effects. Alcohol also slows the function of your liver, potentially causing it to process other medications more slowly and increase their levels in your bloodstream. This can cause many health problems depending on what you are taking. Anyone taking prescription medications should always check with their doctor before using alcohol.
Alcohol and Worsened Pain
Chronically drinking alcohol can actually make the pain more severe. Excessive use of alcohol can cause a small fiber peripheral neuropathy that can cause increased pain sensations. The alcohol will only exacerbate this condition, and you may choose to stop drinking. However, if you decide to stop drinking alcohol, the withdrawal symptoms can heighten feelings of pain, increasing the urge to drink heavily again and feeding into the vicious cycle.
The effects of alcohol also gradually decrease over time as your body adjusts to its effects. This means that to obtain the same effect, you will gradually need to drink more alcohol. This is unsustainable and will eventually make it impossible to use alcohol to give you the pain relief you seek.
Alternatives to Alcohol for Pain Management
While alcohol may seem like an appealing solution to your pain, many alternatives to alcohol can provide you with the relief you seek without creating the long-term risks and potential addiction that alcohol use does.
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Over-The-Counter Pain Relievers
Over-the-counter pain medications can relieve pain. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and Tylenol (acetaminophen) can reduce pain with low-risk complications. Although using any medication for prolonged periods may create undesirable effects, using these medications over the short term to treat pain as it occurs can be a good alternative to alcohol.
Prescription Pain Medications
Prescription pain medications can offer long-term pain relief, treating the source of the pain rather than the pain itself. Prescription medications like opioids can also treat pain as a symptom, but they should not typically be used long-term for chronic pain due to the risk of addiction and overdose. While some prescription pain medications may offer long-term pain relief, you will ultimately need to consult your doctor before starting any prescription treatments.
Natural and Alternative Remedies
You can utilize natural methods to help battle chronic pain. Recent publications in the medical community show that meditation can provide long-term relief from chronic pain. Meditation and other mindfulness techniques can effectively treat chronic pain on their own or with other pain management methods.
Struggling With Alcohol and Chronic Pain?
While alcohol use can provide some temporary relief from chronic pain, the missing piece that many people fail to consider is that using alcohol for pain can quickly lead to alcohol abuse and addiction. Do not let the misleading thought that alcohol can alleviate pain lead you to a problem that will only do more harm and nothing to stop your chronic pain.
At the Recovery Village Ridgefield, we know how hard it can be to overcome an alcohol addiction that develops with chronic pain. We can help you achieve freedom from alcohol while still managing your pain correctly. To learn more about resources to help battle addiction, contact us today.
MedlinePlus. “Alcohol.” March 22, 2022. Accessed January 15, 2023.
Thompson, Trevor. “Is alcohol effective as a painkiller?” 2023. Accessed January 15, 2023.
NHS. “Can I drink alcohol if I’m taking painkillers?” January 11, 2020. Accessed January 15, 2023.
Weatherspoon, Deborah. “Meditating for Chronic Pain Management.” Healthline Media. September 4, 2020. Accessed January 15, 2023.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Using Alcohol to Relieve Your Pain: What Are the Risks?” May 2021. Accessed January 15, 2023.