Chronic pain impacts every aspect of life. Like a persistent drip of water that leaches into and eats a path through hard rock, creating crevasses and waterfalls, it gnaws away at us everyday. Sound melodramatic? How many of us can live with a toothache without demanding relief?
As a result, all too often we look for ways to self medicate. Alcohol initially sounds perfect. The use of alcohol to depress the effects of pain is as old as the fermentation process itself. Alcohol is believed to be one of the oldest and probably the most widely used drugs in the world.
Remember in old Western movies when somebody needed a leg amputated? No anesthesia? No problem. Break out a bottle of whiskey, take a few swigs, bite on a wooden stick and you’re ready. Need to pull that arrow out of a guy’s chest? No need for morphine, use whiskey.
Pain itself is an unpleasant sensation arising from injured or damaged body tissues. Those signals are then carried along nerves to the spinal cord, transmitted upwards and perceived by various parts of the brain. This is called nociceptive pain. In chronic pain sufferers, there is also a type of pain known as neuropathic pain.
Neuropathic pain is experienced when the nervous system is damaged or not working properly. For many years, analgesic (pain relieving) substances have been intensively studied and sought out. Alcohol was among the earliest substances found to be effective.
Many people still turn to the use of alcohol for pain relief due to its ability to depress the central nervous system (CNS). By slowing down the brain and nervous system, it delivers a certain amount of pain relief. It also has muscle relaxant and sedating properties.
But as with any drug prolonged use and excess consumption, the body begins to build up a tolerance to its effects so it takes more alcohol to produce the same results.
This intake then affects all organ systems in the body including problems such as impaired brain function and memory, to peptic ulcers and liver disease. Because alcohol is a major depressant, it exacerbates any underlying depression and is also dangerously habit-forming (addictive). Alcohol may provide temporary relief of pain, but ultimately it ends up worsening the very problems that pain sufferers face.
Most of us are aware of the dangers of mixing alcohol with other depressants like tranquilizers, and pain pills, but the labels on almost all over-the-counter pain relief medications contain warnings concerning their use along with the use of alcohol as well. Alcohol and aspirin can damage the stomach lining. Alcohol and Tylenol can increase the risk of damage to the liver. Alcohol and Advil (ibuprofen) can cause ulcers and stomach bleeding. Simply put, there just are not many medications out there that work well with alcohol.
The relationship between alcohol and pain is a complicated one. Although commonly believed to dull pain, research actually shows that it can make pain worse. Studies suggest that 1 in 4 adults with chronic pain admits to self-medicating with alcohol but it usually requires doses consistent with binge drinking to do so. Binge drinking is defined as drinking enough to bring blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 percent, which typically occurs after 4 drinks for women and 5 drinks for men in about 2 hours. A recent analysis of the findings from 18 studies on alcohol and pain concluded that a BAC of 0.08 percent produces a small increase in pain threshold and a reduction in pain intensity. These findings could help explain why some people with chronic pain drink excessively. Unfortunately, reaching BAC levels this high also is associated with unintentional injuries, violence, traffic fatalities, and other consequences. And long-term excessive drinking makes physical pain worse.
How does alcohol negatively impact us?
1. It’s a diuretic, so it increases urination. That leads to dehydration hich has detrimental effects on muscular contraction. Every gram of alcohol ingested increases urine flow by about two teaspoons. To put that in perspective, a 12 ounce can of beet contains about 14 grams of alcohol. That’s an extra half-cup of pee.
2. It interferes with how our bodies produce energy. Pushing all that liquor into our livers leaves us with less glucose, the sugar needed to power our muscles. So we hit that “wall” sooner.
3. It increases blood flow because it’s a reasonably good vasodilator. But that’s not necessarily a good thing- it can make an area swell or inflame easier, causing more pain.
4. Alcohol can also poison muscle fibers. Beer, in particular, affects the fast-twitch anaerobic fibers by inhibiting an enzyme that helps fuel the muscle. When that happens, the fibers don’t adapt like they should for up to three days. The result: a longer recovery period.
5. As for that pain you say a glass of pinot takes away? Alcohol makes you feel less pain because of the effects on nerve endings, but it’s only a temporary mask and requires more and more to be effective.
6. People think alcohol will help them relax and sleep better. But it actually disrupts sleep patterns so they don’t get a restful night’s sleep. And a restful sleep is imperative to recovering and decreasing pain levels.
Alcohol interferes with the ability muscles have to rebuild by reducing protein synthesis. So not only does alcohol interfere with the recovery of muscle damage and injury, it also reduces the processes responsible for building muscle.
We all want our brains working at full capacity. Alcohol is only a short-term, dangerous fix. In the end it causes far more harm than benefit. The bottom line? Switch to water!