The Worst Best Medicine: Alcohol and Pain


Paradoxically, the thing that made uncle Jeff decide to go sledding off the roof is the same thing that will ease the pain of a fractured tailbone.

We second the notion that it’s always better to “enjoy responsibly,” as the beer commercials say, but if you happen to over-indulge, the science says you at least have something to numb the pain in the event of an injury.

The Science

According to this systematic review by the University of Greenwich (London), alcohol acts as an “effective analgesic that delivers clinically relevant reductions in ratings of pain intensity.” 

The review, spanning eighteen studies and 404 total participants, determined from the data that alcohol use resulted in a mean reduction of 1.25 points on a 0- to 10-point pain rating scale.

The Catch

This chuckle-worthy observation takes a more sobering turn in the case of chronic pain sufferers, who often resort to irresponsible alcohol consumption on an ongoing basis in order to produce this analgesic effect.

Besides the obvious, the problem with this behavior as pointed out in this article from Syracuse University is that “excessive alcohol consumption may be associated with poorer pain-related functioning and an increased likelihood of developing chronic pain.” 

Conversely, the article explains that moderate alcohol use (compared to no use) actually improves pain-related functioning.

So, while we tend to have a little less sympathy for uncle Jeff and his glitched-out prefrontal cortex, chronic pain folks who aren’t having their pain managed effectively are in a dangerous, potentially snowballing situation when they turn to alcohol for pain management.

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