Do You Use Alcohol to Relieve Chronic Pain?

By Rochelle Odell, Columnist

I’m in a Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS/RSD) support group and one of our members recently asked if any members were turning to alcohol because their pain medication had been reduced or stopped.

It piqued my interest, so I began researching the topic. There aren’t many current studies or reports, but it’s a valid question since alcohol is much easier to obtain than pain medication.

Alcohol was among the earliest substances used to relieve physical pain and, of course, many people use it to cope with emotional pain.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, as many as 28% of people with chronic pain turn to alcohol to alleviate their suffering.

Another study from 2009 found that about 25% of patients self-medicated with alcohol for tooth pain, jaw pain or arthritis pain.

There is no documented increase in alcohol use by chronic pain patients at this time, although I would hope there are studies in process that further clarify the question and problems arising from it -- especially with opioid pain medication being reined in and so many patients left with nothing to relieve their pain.

There are many reasons why a person may self-medicate with alcohol.

“People have been using alcohol to help cope with chronic pain for many years. Many people also may use alcohol as a way to manage stress, and chronic pain often can be a significant stressor,” Jonas Bromberg, PsyD, wrote in PainAction.

“One theory about why alcohol may be used to manage chronic pain is because it affects the central nervous system in a way that may result in a mild amount of pain reduction. 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 temporary 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.”

Constant, unrelenting pain is definitely a stressor -- that's putting it mildly -- but I’ve never added alcohol to my pain medication regimen. I was always afraid of the possible deadly side effects, coupled with the fact my mother was an alcoholic who mixed her medication with it. That's a path I have chosen not to go down.

Bromberg also tells us that men may be more likely to use alcohol for pain relief than women, and people with higher income also tend to use alcohol more to treat their chronic pain.

Interestingly, the use of alcohol is usually not related to how intense a person’s pain is or how long they’ve had it. It was the regularity of pain symptoms – chronic pain -- that seemed most related to alcohol use, according to Bromberg.

Those who self-medicate with alcohol for physical or emotional pain often use it with a variety of substances, both legal and illegal.

Researchers at Boston University School of Medicine and Boston Medical Center reported last year in the Journal of General Internal Medicine that in a study of nearly 600 patients who screened positive for illicit drugs, nearly 90 percent had chronic pain. Over half of them used marijuana, cocaine or heroin, and about half reported heavy drinking.

“It was common for patients to attribute their substance use to treating symptoms of pain,” the researchers reported. “Among those with any recent heavy alcohol use, over one-third drank to treat their pain, compared to over three-quarters of those who met the criteria for current high-risk alcohol use.”

“Substance use” (not abuse) was defined as use of illegal drugs, misuse of prescription drugs, or high risk alcohol use. I had not heard of this term before, it’s usually called substance abuse.  Perhaps these researchers were onto something really important that needs further study, particularly with opioid medication under fire.

“While the association between chronic pain and drug addiction has been observed in prior studies, this study goes one step further to quantify how many of these patient are using these substances specifically to treat chronic pain," they added.

What this information shows is that if one is on pain medication, using alcohol or an illegal substance does not make one unique. It is certainly not safe, but it does occur. We are all struggling to find ways to cope with chronic pain, and if someone is denied one substance they are at high risk of turning to another.

Rochelle Odell lives in California. She’s lived for nearly 25 years with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS/RSD).

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.