People have used alcohol to numb or relieve pain since ancient times. It’s even a popular TV trope: characters in old-time dramas are often shown downing whiskey or vodka as bullets are extracted and wounds are patched up. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism1 (NIAAA), as many as 28 percent of people dealing with chronic pain use alcohol to reduce their suffering.
But does alcohol really help that much with pain? And is it safe to regularly use alcohol for this purpose? Before you decide to use whiskey or wine for pain relief, make sure you know the facts.
Does Alcohol Help with Pain?
According to studies, the answer is yes—at least in the short-term. Researchers still aren’t 100 percent sure why alcohol helps with pain, but it does seem to slow down the central nervous system. This can reduce symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression, which might make pain easier to tolerate. Alcohol may also block the transmission of pain signals in the spinal cord, directly muting unpleasant sensations.
Research2 published in the Journal of Pain found that for every alcoholic drink consumed, participants reported a small decrease in their pain sensitivity. After three to four drinks, the pain-killing effects of alcohol increased to “moderate-large.” The researchers concluded that for moderate pain, the relieving effects of alcohol are “comparable to opioids.”
It’s important to note that three to four drinks exceeds the standard definition of moderate drinking (up to one drink per day for women and up to two for men). Significant pain relief therefore requires drinking more than is generally healthy.
So, does alcohol numb pain? Yes. But just like opioids, alcohol presents numerous risks when used for long-term pain relief.
How Does Alcohol Affect Chronic Pain?
While it may give short-term relief, alcohol is a risky choice of long-term pain medication. Not only is it an addictive substance, it can also cause additional chronic pain and illness if used excessively and continuously.
To begin with, the longer someone drinks alcohol to medicate pain, the more their tolerance increases. This means it takes more and more alcohol to experience the same level of relief. This can lead to physical dependence on alcohol, which comes with many of its own problems—impacting finances, relationships, and health.
Diseases caused by excessive alcohol use include cancer, liver disease, brain damage, and more. Heavy drinking may also lead to small fiber peripheral neuropathy, which carries symptoms like pain, tingling, and a “pins and needles” feeling, especially in the feet.
On top of all this, when someone withdraws from long-term alcohol use, their sensitivity to pain increases. For chronic pain sufferers, this makes it extremely difficult to stop drinking alcohol.
In summary, using alcohol to medicate chronic pain can lead to:
- Increased tolerance and physical dependence
- Issues with relationships, finances, work, and/or legal trouble stemming from dependence
- Health issues including cancer and liver ailments
- Pain in the form of small fiber peripheral neuropathy
- Difficulty quitting or cutting back due to withdrawal symptoms, which include increased sensitivity to pain
So, while alcohol may solve one problem, it can cause many others and make pain even worse long-term.
Risks of Mixing Alcohol and Pain Medicine
Additionally, alcohol does not mix well with pain medicine—even over the counter treatments. Mixing alcohol with Tylenol, for example, can cause liver damage3, and combining alcohol and aspirin increases the risk of gastric bleeding. Alcohol and Advil may also lead to gastric bleeding and ulcers.
Taken together, alcohol and opioids make you drowsy, cause memory problems, and sometimes slow breathing to the point of accidental overdose4. Older people are especially vulnerable to fatal overdose from alcohol and opioids.
So, in the long-term, alcohol for pain relief does far more harm than good. Drinking may temporarily reduce pain. But if you use alcohol for this purpose on a regular basis, it can lead to dependence, other health problems, and even death when mixed with certain pain medication.
If you experience chronic pain, it’s far more effective to consult with both physicians and behavioral health specialists for help managing it. Innovative cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness techniques, for example, can safely improve pain management and tolerance5.
If you’ve been drinking to cope, and you’re having a hard time cutting back on your own, it can be helpful to seek support. Ria Health offers a convenient, affordable program 100 percent from your smartphone. Access anti-craving medications, weekly coaching support, digital tools, and more—all from the comfort of home.