Alcohol and pain
Written by: Jonas I. Bromberg, Psy.D.
Published: January 07, 2011
Reviewed by: Wendy Williams, BSN, MEd, February 2013
People have been using alcohol to cope with pain since the beginning of human history. Many people also use alcohol as a way to manage stress, and chronic pain is a significant stressor. Research studies have found that as many as 28% of people with chronic pain use alcohol as a pain management strategy.
This research also indicates that men are more likely to have used alcohol as a pain management strategy than women. People with higher income also may tend to use alcohol more. The use of alcohol to help control pain seems to be connected with the frequency of pain, as those with more frequent pain used more alcohol. The use of alcohol was not related to how intense the pain was, or how long a person had been living with pain. It’s the regularity of pain symptoms that seems most connected to the use of alcohol to relieve pain.
Alcohol may help decrease pain because it affects the central nervous system in a way that results in a mild amount of pain relief. However, medical experts are quick to point out that alcohol has no direct pain-relieving value, even if the short-term affects provide some amount of relief. In fact, using alcohol as a way to relieve pain can cause significant problems, especially in cases of excessive use, or when it is used with pain medication.
Alcohol and medications
The dangers of mixing alcohol with prescription medications are well known because of the large amount of the publicity this has received in the mainstream media. In addition, many over-the-counter pain medications (such as aspirin, acetaminophen, naproxen sodium, and ibuprofen) contain warnings about their use with alcohol. Using alcohol with these medications can significantly increase the risk of liver damage, stomach ulcers, and intestinal bleeding.
Many prescription pain medications make you drowsy. Alcohol has the same effect on the way the central nervous system functions. Therefore, the combination of alcohol and prescription pain medication has what’s called a “synergistic effect”. This is when two substances are mixed together in the body, the effect is much greater than either one would be separately. Mixing alcohol and prescription pain medication can cause nausea, vomiting, decreased heart rate, decreased breathing, overdose, and even death.
It’s also important to know that alcohol can produce a similar effect when mixed with many common over-the-counter pain medications. If you’re taking any over-the-counter medications to manage your pain, talk to your healthcare provider or pharmacist about any reactions that may result from mixing them with alcohol.
Alcohol, sleep, and pain
Chronic pain often disrupts sleep. The use of alcohol can further disrupt the normal sleep cycle. Researchers have found that the use of alcohol by people with chronic pain is one of the leading factors contributing to sleep disruption. Drinking alcohol within an hour of going to bed can wreak havoc on this cycle.
Lack of sleep, or poor sleep, hurts the body in many ways and can lead to irritability, depressed mood, and fatigue. This can have a negative effect on your ability to cope with pain. The connection between sleep and managing pain can leave some people vulnerable to a vicious cycle - poor sleep leaves you less able to deal with pain, and using alcohol to cope with pain leaves you less able to sleep. Researchers have found that the use of alcohol accurately predicted the quality of sleep in people with chronic pain.
Alcohol tolerance can also lead to negative health outcomes. Over time, the body builds up a tolerance to the effects of alcohol so that it takes more alcohol to produce the same effects. The same thing can happen with pain medications. Increasing the use of alcohol to stay ahead of the effects of tolerance can lead to other problems, like the development of liver disease and alcohol dependency.
Paying attention to sleep, stress, and alcohol use is an important way to effectively cope with pain. If you use alcohol frequently to relieve your pain, it is important to learn about the potential adverse health effect. Ask your health care provider if any alcohol use is safe for you.
Using Alcohol to Relieve Your Pain: What Are the Risks? (NIAAA) http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/PainFactsheet/Pain_Alcohol.pdf
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