The Complex Relationship Between Alcohol and Pain

(Editor’s note: A recent PNN survey found that nearly 20% of chronic pain patients used alcohol for pain relief. Many do so because they lost access to opioid medication. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) recently published this article on pain and alcohol, and invited PNN to republish it.)

The relationship between alcohol and pain is a complicated one. It is a common belief that alcohol dulls pain, yet research shows that sometimes alcohol can make pain worse.

Understanding the complex relationship between alcohol and pain is an important area of research for NIAAA. In 2016, about 20 percent of adults (50 million people) in the United States had chronic pain, defined as pain most days in the previous 6 months. Recent studies suggest that around 1 in 4 adults in chronic pain reports self-medicating with alcohol, and 43–73 percent of people with alcohol use disorder (AUD) report experiencing chronic pain.

adult-3183055_640.jpg

An improved understanding of the effects of alcohol on pain, the role of pain in alcohol misuse, and potential interactions between alcohol and opioids during pain treatment hopefully will improve treatment outcomes for patients in pain.

Alcohol has been found to alleviate physical pain, but it 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. In a group of 30 men in treatment for AUD, sensitivity to pain increased early in abstinence.

People also sometimes use alcohol in an effort to cope with emotional pain. Unfortunately, as with physical pain, the temporary reprieve alcohol might offer gives way to an increase in emotional pain when the alcohol wears off.

Chronic alcohol misuse can lead to the emergence of a negative emotional state, known as hyperkatifeia, in between episodes of drinking. The resulting irritability, dysphoria, and anxiety fuel further alcohol use. As with physical pain, drinking alcohol to cope with emotional pain makes the situation worse. (For more information, see “Alcohol and ‘Deaths of Despair.’”)

Opioid analgesics commonly are prescribed to treat physical pain and often are misused to cope with emotional pain. Used separately, alcohol and opioids can cause overdose deaths by suppressing areas in the brain stem that control breathing. Using alcohol and opioids together amplifies the danger. Research suggests that alcohol plays a role in around 1 in 5 deaths from opioid overdoses.

Because the mechanisms by which alcohol and opioids reduce physical and emotional pain overlap, regular use of one drug diminishes the effects of the other. For instance, when researchers examined opioid pain medication use after abdominal surgery in more than 4,000 patients, they found that frequent alcohol consumption was associated with increased opioid use for pain control.

Similarly, in rats allowed to drink alcohol for 8 weeks, opioids became less effective at reducing physical pain. Withdrawal from opioids, like withdrawal from alcohol, leads to the emotional misery of hyperkatifeia.

As part of the National Institutes of Health Helping to End Addiction Long-Term (HEAL) initiative, NIAAA is encouraging studies to develop and validate biomarkers of comorbid alcohol misuse and chronic pain and that address alcohol misuse in the context of chronic pain management.

NIAAA also encourages research on the impact of alcohol and sleep disturbances on pain through a new funding opportunity. These efforts, among others, should shed light on how alcohol affects pain and vice versa and could have implications for both treating AUD and managing chronic pain.

Misleading CDC Study Links Prescription Opioids to Binge Drinking 

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that over half of people who misuse prescription opioids also binge drink, increasing their risk of dying from an overdose.

“We are losing far too many Americans each day from overdoses,” CDC Director Robert Redfield, MD, said in a statement. “Combining alcohol and opioids can significantly increase the risk of overdoses and deaths.”

Binge drinking and misuse of opioid medication are never a good idea, whether done separately or in combination. Unfortunately, the CDC study is written in ways that mislead and further worsen the stigma associated with prescription opioid use. And it fails to acknowledge the role CDC itself has played in the growing use of alcohol for pain relief.

The study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, is based on survey of over 160,000 people who participated in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health from 2012 to 2014. After analyzing their answers, CDC researchers came to some sweeping conclusions about Americans getting high on pills and alcohol.

“Prescription opioids were responsible for approximately 17,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2016. One in five prescription opioid deaths also involve alcohol,” wrote lead author Marissa Ether, PhD, CDC Division of Population Health.

“More than half of the 4.2 million people who misused prescription opioids during 20122014 were binge drinkers, and binge drinkers had nearly twice the odds of misusing prescription opioids, compared with nondrinkers.”

alcohol-428392_640.jpg

The statement that prescription opioids “were responsible” for 17,000 deaths is misleading because it is based on data from death certificates and coroner reports that only indicate the medications were present or “involved” in overdoses. Other substances may have played a role or perhaps even caused those 17,000 deaths.

In 2016, over twice as many fatal overdoses involved heroin and illicit fentanyl, but CDC researchers “did not consider the use of illicit opioids” for their binge drinking study. Apparently, street drug users are teetotalers who do not drink.

And who were the binge drinkers who misused prescription opioids? They were recreational users of opioid medication who did not take the drugs for pain relief. “Misuse” in the study was defined as “use without a prescription or use only for the experience or feeling it causes.”

To be clear, pain patients with legitimate opioid prescriptions that are used appropriately were not included in the study. These patients are actually less likely to be binge drinkers — defined as four or more drinks by a woman, or five or more drinks by a man — and they are warned repeatedly not to mix their medications with alcohol. Including them would have significantly changed the study findings.

Patients Using Alcohol for Pain Relief

Perhaps the biggest oversight by CDC researchers is the 2012-2014 time frame chosen for their study – which is well before the agency released its controversial 2016 opioid prescribing guideline.

One of the key findings from a recent PNN survey of nearly 6,000 patients is that the guideline has limited their access to prescription opioids so severely that some are turning to alcohol for pain relief. Nearly one out of five patients surveyed said they had used alcohol for pain relief since the guideline came out.

“It has caused many pain patients to be cut off their pain medication,” one patient told us. “After losing my meds 16 months ago, I just started using alcohol and I never used alcohol. I don't like alcohol, but what are my options?” 

“Since my doctor stopped prescribing even my small amount of opioids I deal with days where I can’t even get out of bed because I hurt so much and I’m stuck turning to alcohol, excessive amounts of acetaminophen and NSAIDs,” another patient said. 

“The CDC guidelines are killing people,” one woman wrote. “My fiancé has been refused even the most mild stenosis treatment because he admitted using alcohol to treat his pain when he has no other treatment. He's mildly suicidal as well. We have two young kids.” 

“I lost a good friend to suicide because she was not able to get pain medications to relieve her pain and it was too much for her to handle,” a patient said. “Sadly, she is not the only one. I'm hearing about more and more. I'm also hearing about people turning towards alcohol.” 

“All they are doing is pushing chronic pain patients to find relief in other ways such as alcohol, illicit drugs or harming themselves to get the pain relief they do desperately seek,” wrote another patient. 

In other words, alcohol use is acceptable to the CDC — as long as it is not combined with prescribed opioid medication. This is your nation’s health protection agency at work.