More Than One-Quarter of Chronic Pain Sufferers Turn To Alcohol

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More Than One-Quarter of Chronic Pain Sufferers Turn To Alcohol

Historically, alcohol was among the first substances that humans used to relieve pain. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIDAAA) an estimated 28% of chronic pain sufferers use alcohol to self-medicate.

Similarly, a 2009 study revealed that around one-quarter of people who suffered from arthritis, jaw pain, or tooth pain reporting consuming alcohol in an attempt to alleviate pain.

These are scary facts since many health care providers are being encouraged to cut down on opioid prescriptions, particularly for chronic pain. Moreover, if these patients aren’t receiving adequate pain management, some may turn to alcohol – just as many have turned to heroin.

But truthfully how much pain relief can one get from alcohol use? Experts believe that alcohol can be effective because it works on the central nervous system in a way that may reduce pain – temporarily, and to a small extent. However, alcohol has no direct pain-relieving properties, and the risk of abuse and dependence probably outweighs most short-term benefits.

There are other reasons, however, that chronic pain patients use alcohol – physical pain is mentally and emotionally stressful, and alcohol is also used often to ease internal pain, as well. And it’s not uncommon for those who use alcohol to cope with chronic pain to use other substances, such as prescription painkillers and illicit drugs.

Indeed, last year, researchers at Boston University School of Medicine and Boston Medical Center found that among nearly 589 patients who tested positive for illicit drugs, almost 90% also had chronic pain.

More than half of the subjects used marijuana, cocaine, or heroin – and about half admitted to engaging in heavy drinking. Certainly, this wasn’t the first study to examine the relationship between addiction and pain, but this research was among the first to determine how many patients reported using substances to relieve chronic pain.

According to NIDAAA, mixing alcohol with pain medications can be dangerous. Combining alcohol and acetaminophen can cause liver damage, while drinking with aspirin use increases the risk of gastric bleeding. Finally, alcohol increasing the sedative effects of opiates/opioids, therefore increasing the risk of overdose.

~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology

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