Pain is your body’s alarm signal to alert you that something may be wrong like an injury or illness. While medications can be used for pain, alcohol is commonly used to cope with many different types of pain, which can be risky. If you are thinking about or already use alcohol to relieve your pain, continue reading to learn about the risks:
Acute vs. chronic pain
Acute pain is sudden and usually lasts for a few weeks to six months. Chronic pain often lasts beyond six months and is associated with changes in the central nervous system (think: shifts in the brain that can affect how we feel, think and behave).
What are the dangers of using alcohol to cope with pain?
- The strongest pain relief is risky. The greatest pain-reducing effects happen when alcohol is consumed in amounts above moderate drinking limits (remember, that is 1 drink a day for women or 2 for men and no more than 7 drinks a week for woman or 14 for men).
- Alcohol tolerance will make relief harder to reach. The more someone drinks alcohol, the more likely they are to build a tolerance; meaning the more they drink for pain the more alcohol they’ll need to drink to feel the same relieving effects.
- The bad outweighs the good. If drinking to cope with pain leads to excessive alcohol use, the impact on the body can actually be more pain. Drinking alcohol may cause hangover symptoms like nausea and vomiting, a lowered immune system and disturbed sleep—all of which can make the body less resilient, lower pain tolerance and worsen existing pain.
- Mixing alcohol with over-the-counter pain medication is not safe. Drinking alcohol while taking certain medications can change how they affect the body. Even combining them in small amounts can change how you feel the effects of alcohol and cause a bad reaction (think: dizziness, fainting, throwing up, difficulty breathing and more) or unintentional injury (back to square one!).
- Alcohol and prescription opioids are a bad combination. Your provider may have prescribed you opioids for your pain. It’s important to use them safely and as directed. Drinking alcohol while taking any prescription opioids is not safe.
- More stress = more pain. Feelings of relaxation increase when blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels rise, but that’s only temporary. When BAC levels fall (meaning as a person sobers up), depressive symptoms like mood shifts and anxiety can rush in and cause stress. When stressed, muscles may tense or spasm and inflammation levels may increase which can make pain worse.
Get ahead of pain
If you’re in pain and need support, talk to your health care provider sooner than later. Check out the Defense Department’s risky drug use campaign, Too Much to Lose, which offers many resources around how to manage pain [PDF 449KB], how to reduce your risk for chronic pain and information about prescription drug safety.
There are healthier ways to manage your pain without alcohol so you can protect your health, career and overall well-being.