Researchers have found that alcohol is an effective, yet risky way to manage pain.
Researchers at the University of Michigan surveyed over 2,500 patients being treated at an onsite pain clinic about whether they consume alcohol and their drinking habits overall, along with their pain severity and physical function. The patients were also screened for depression and anxiety. The team found that approximately one-third were diagnosed with fibromyalgia (FM), causing full body pain, insomnia, chronic fatigue, headaches, and mood swings. Patients who were moderate drinkers, although engaging in risky, potentially problematic drinking, experienced less pain and decreased symptoms than those who abstained from drinking altogether.
Mayo Clinic defines ‘moderate drinking’ for healthy adults as “up to one drink a day for women of all ages and men older than age 65, and up to two drinks a day for men age 65 and younger.” Moderate drinkers with chronic pain were more likely to “be white, have an advanced degree, and were less likely to use opioids.” They reported “less pain, lower anxiety and depression, and higher physical function.” The researchers published their findings in Pain Medicine.
“Female and male chronic pain patients who drink no more than seven and fourteen alcoholic drinks per week, respectively, reported significantly lower FM symptoms, pain severity, pain-related interference in activities, depression, anxiety and catastrophizing, and higher physical function,” said lead author Ryan Scott, MPH, of UM’s Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center, adding, “These findings suggest that chronic pain patients with a lesser degree of pain centralization may benefit most from low-risk, moderate alcohol consumption.”
Of the study participants, over half reported use of opioid prescription pain medication, which can be very risky when combined with alcohol consumption. Researchers surmised that this could be one reason participants in the study drank less alcohol than the general population.
“People with chronic pain may drink less due to the stigma and because they are being told not to drink while on pain medication,” Scott said.
Researchers found that fibromyalgia patients who drank moderately experienced less symptoms of depression and chronic pain, but “alcohol had no effect on how widespread their pain was or other symptoms such as cramps, headache, fatigue, poor sleep and cognitive dysfunction,” the study found.
“Alcohol increases gamma-aminobutyric acid in the brain, which is why we could be seeing some of the psychiatric effects. Even though alcohol helped some fibromyalgia patients, it didn’t have the same level of effect,” said Scott. “You probably need much more GABA to block pain signals and that may be why we’re not seeing as high an effect in these patients.”
In a 2017 survey published in the Journal of Pain, British researchers also found “robust evidence” that alcohol “acts as an analgesic” and there have been more than a dozen previous studies suggesting alcohol is an effective pain reliever. Of course, alcohol, like opioids, is addictive and comes with its own set of risks, and mixing opioids and alcohol can be especially deadly.
“It could be a stepping stone to increased quality of life, leading to more social interactions,” Scott explained. “Fibromyalgia patients in particular have a lot of psychological trauma, anxiety and catastrophizing, and allowing for the occasional drink might increase social habits and overall health.”