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The Link Between Alcohol Use and Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is commonly defined as any pain that lasts more than 12 weeks. However, it can last for months or even years – just ask any of the estimated 20 percent of U.S. adults and 30 percent of Canadian adults suffering from chronic pain. It can be caused by a musculoskeletal injury, nervous system dysfunction or chronic diseases and autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and inflammatory bowel disease.

Chronic pain can impact nearly every facet of daily life and has been linked to disability, dependence on opioids, higher rates of anxiety and depression and reduced quality of life overall. This will likely sound very familiar to anyone who has experienced chronic pain firsthand or has seen its effects on friends or family members.

While there are many different ways to address pain, many people choose alcohol as a short-term escape from pain. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholismas many as 28 percent of people with chronic pain turn to alcohol to alleviate their suffering. The problem is that alcohol is not a long-term pain management solution and comes with many risks when used this way.

It’s a common misconception that alcohol is an effective painkiller, when in reality alcohol has no direct pain-relieving value. Alcohol doesn’t directly alleviate pain symptoms; it affects the central nervous system so pain is not perceived to be as bad. The greatest pain-reducing effects of alcohol occur when it’s consumed at doses exceeding moderate daily guidelines. Drinking in moderation is defined as limiting alcohol to two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.

There are many risks involved when alcohol is used to reduce chronic pain. These include dependence and addiction, negative reactions with pain medications and the possibility of making pain worse.

Dependence and Addiction

When alcohol is used as a regular pain management “tool,” over time the body and brain get used to the presence of alcohol and build up a tolerance. This leads to the need to consume greater amounts of alcohol to feel the same level of pain reduction. Over time, this can lead someone to develop a dependence on alcohol, which can lead to alcohol addiction.

Alcohol and Medication

Many over-the-counter and prescription medications carry warnings not to mix drugs with alcohol. That’s because alcohol can interact negatively with a number of medications, including acetaminophen (Tylenol), aspirin and opioids. Mixing opioids and alcohol can be particularly dangerous since both substances suppress respiration and can cause a person to stop breathing. It’s been estimated that alcohol–medication interactions may be a factor in at least 25 percent of emergency room visits.

Making Pain Worse

Heavy alcohol use ultimately makes pain worse. When a person stops chronic heavy alcohol use, withdrawal symptoms often cause pain sensitivity to increase. Heavy alcohol use in men is defined as four or more drinks per day or 15 or more drinks per week. For women, heavy drinking is three or more drinks per day or more than eight drinks per week.

Sadly, this can motivate some to continue drinking or drink even more. Additionally, prolonged, excess consumption of alcohol can cause nerve damage. This type of neuropathy causes symptoms like pain, tingling, “pins and needles” sensations in the extremities or altered sensations, especially in the feet.

SAMHSA’s National Helpline (1-800-662-HELP) is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service available in English and Spanish for individuals and families facing mental or substance use disorders.

Any short-term relief alcohol may provide is far outweighed by these risks. Living with pain is hard, and most people who haven’t dealt with it don’t understand the struggle. Support groups provide a safe place to talk with people who understand, find emotional support and learn about treatments and management strategies. Support groups can be accessed online, in person and even over the phone. Groups such as the National Fibromyalgia & Chronic Pain AssociationPain ConnectionThe MightyMyChronicPainTeamChronic Pain Anonymous, and the American Chronic Pain Association are all a good place to start.

[Jamie Becker is the LHSNFA’s Director of Health Promotion.]

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