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5 Things You Need to Know About Alcohol's Effect on Joint Pain

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You have probably heard the expression “feeling no pain” when referring to someone who has had too much to drink. While it is true that alcohol can numb the pain to some degree, consuming too much alcohol is never advisable, and alcohol consumption is not a recommended way to control joint pain -- even small amounts may be harmful. In fact, you should be aware that alcohol can negatively interact with medications you may be taking to alleviate your joint pain.

Alcohol Can Decrease Pain

Alcohol generally decreases the activity of nerves within the brain, which is why it makes you sleepy. As the sensation of pain occurs within the brain, alcohol may also numb you to pain signals coming from your joints. But is there actual scientific proof that alcohol is an analgesic that reduces pain? A systematic review published in the December 2016 issue of "The Journal of Pain" suggests that there is evidence to support the analgesic effects of alcohol. This review analyzed 18 previous studies in which participants received painful stimuli before and after alcohol administration and rated their discomfort. The authors found that alcohol significantly increased the minimal amount of painful stimulation that was needed to be perceived as pain. It also decreased the severity of the reported pain. These effects occurred at a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent, the legal limit in the United States, and the higher the blood alcohol level, the greater the degree of analgesia.

Alcohol and Chronic Pain Have a Complicated Relationship

Because alcohol does have some pain-reducing properties, people with chronic pain sometimes use alcohol to self-medicate. A study published in "The Journal of Pain" in September 2009 reported that approximately 25 percent of adults with arthritis pain self-medicated with alcohol. In fact, a review in the November 2012 issue of "Neuroscience and Behavioral Reviews" suggests that alcohol’s analgesic effects are associated with an increased risk of becoming alcohol-dependent and that tolerance to alcohol’s analgesic effects develops with repeated consumption. The authors also noted that extended use of alcohol can actually induce pain symptoms and exacerbate chronic pain.

Alcohol Can Be Bad for Your Health

Excessive alcohol consumption can have several short-term detrimental effects, including accidents, violence, risky behavior and alcohol poisoning. Long-term negative health effects of excessive alcohol consumption include alcohol addiction and an increased risk of liver disease, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and mental health problems. It also increases the likelihood of developing cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, colon, liver and breast. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), even moderate alcohol consumption increases your risk of certain cancers and liver disease. In fact, a study published in the April 2013 issue of the "American Journal of Public Health" estimated that alcohol consumption led to around 18,000 to 21,000 cancer deaths in the United States during 2009, and consumption of fewer than 1 1/2 drinks per day accounted for one-fourth to one-third of these alcohol-related cancer deaths.

Alcohol Can Interact With Medications

Alcohol can negatively interact with hundreds of medications, including those used for joint pain. Even small amounts of alcohol may interfere with their effectiveness or intensify their side effects. For example, drinking alcohol and taking common pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), acetaminophen (Tylenol), naproxen (Aleve) or celecoxib (Celebrex) may increase the risk of developing stomach bleeding and ulcers, as well as liver damage. Many other medications, such as those used to treat anxiety, attention deficit disorder, depression, diabetes, heartburn, high blood pressure and infections, can have more serious, dangerous interactions with alcohol, such as an increased risk of heart attack, changes in blood pressure or impaired breathing. Always ask your doctor whether any medications you are taking will interact with alcohol.

Alcohol Is Not Recommended to Treat Joint Pain

You should not use alcohol to provide relief from your joint pain because of its potential health risks. In fact, if your joint pain is due to gout, alcohol consumption should be avoided, as it can increase uric acid production, which may worsen your gout. CDC recommends limiting alcohol consumption and notes that no minimum amount of alcohol has been proved to be safe.

If your joint pain is intense or interfers with your everyday life, see your doctor. If the pain came on suddenly, perhaps from a fall or accident, seek prompt medical attention. Talk to your doctor if you feel that you need to drink to relieve your pain, have trouble limiting your alcohol consumption, find your drinking interferes with your responsibilities or are concerned that you are drinking too much.

Reviewed by: Mary D. Daley, M.D.

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