If you have a glass of wine or a cocktail or two most nights to cope with chronic pain (eg, back pain), you may be on to something. Research studies have found that moderate use of alcohol does, in fact, relieve pain for many people, and those who routinely drink reasonable amounts of alcohol reportedly cope better with pain and disability than those who don’t drink at all. That makes sense, because alcohol is an analgesic and anesthetic and as such, can reduce the sensation of both physical and emotional pain.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, moderate drinking is defined as up to one drink a day for women and up to 2 drinks a day for men. Unfortunately, not everyone who drinks alcohol does so in moderation, and for some people, alcohol, even in small doses, carries big risks to health and well-being.
Some people who drink alcohol to cope with pain were heavy drinkers before they had a chronic condition. Others became more dependent on alcohol after developing a painful disease or disability, suggesting that chronic pain can put some people at risk of alcohol abuse and addiction. Studies have found that when people who are in recovery from alcohol addiction suffer from chronic pain, they have a significantly higher rate of relapse than those who don’t have chronic medical conditions.
For many people, excessive drinking can lead to even more pain and other health complications. For instance, chronic alcoholism is linked to peripheral neuropathy, or damage to peripheral nerves that causes stabbing pain and numbness in your hands and feet, and interferes with your central nervous system’s ability to send signals from your brain and spinal cord to the rest of your body.
Pain can lead people to drink more alcohol than they might otherwise consume, and researchers have found the most pain relief comes from drinking amounts that are well above general guidelines for moderate use. But even if you stick to the guidelines for drinking in moderation, routine use of alcohol could still be harmful to your health, especially if you are also taking pain medication. This is as true for aspirin and other over-the-counter drugs used to treat inflammatory pain as it is for stronger prescription medications. Over time, combining alcohol with aspirin can cause bleeding in the stomach and combining alcohol with acetaminophen can cause acute liver failure.
The bottom line? Speak with your doctor if you regularly drink alcoholic beverages to relieve or cope with pain. That way you’ll be sure the amount you drink can safely be combined with any medications you take and that, overall, the benefits of drinking outweigh any risk of side effects that could cause more damage and pain in your body.