Alcohol And Joint Pain
'Is Drinking Good or Bad For Joint Pain - The Jury Is Out'
By Definition –
Alcohol has long been considered as a potential pain reliever. The truth however, is that alcohol can be both good for pain relief in the short run and make the pain a lot worse in the longer term. Of course even then, nothing is ever quite that simple. We consider the case for and against…..
Our Member Survey Says…
- 68% of our members that responded, admitted that they did have a casual alcoholic drink, and 88% of those that did, considered it a positive for pain relief (1,412 members responded)
- Of those members that did have a drink, 35% ticked to indicate that they were on prescription medications for the pain relief already (no intent was made to classify if they were medications that prohibited alcoholic consumption).
(Results from our member survey completed 10th July 2019, to be redone July 2020)
‘Alcohol numbs the pain’ – fact or fiction? Alcohol and joint pain have a complicated relationship, but the facts behind the alcohol may surprise you…
Alcohol And Joint Pain
Ever since the time of cowboys taking a slug of whiskey in a bar to numb the pain while having a bullet removed or a pirate taking a mouthful of rum before stitching themselves back together, alcohol has been seen as a pain reliever.
However, as more is understood about the effects of alcohol, and indeed of a healthy diet altogether, so the real relationship between alcohol and joint pain is seen in an increasingly negative light.
To take either side as black or white however is naïve. Alcohol can decrease pain – that’s a fact. Alcohol decreases the activity of nerves within your brain.
These nerves are the same ones that carry and interpret pain messages from around your body.
Therefore, in the same way that this decreased brain activity makes us feel sleepy after a night out, it can also numb the pain signals from your joints going to your brain.
Many of us will have seen examples of people who’ve drunk too much and then had an accident, only to get up seemingly unaffected by the pain.
A review in ‘The Journal Of Pain’ (December 2016) looked at 18 separate studies and concluded that, even with very low levels of alcohol, the amount of painful stimulation required to register as pain was greatly increased.
However, much like the hangover next day, as mentioned above the relationship between alcohol and joint pain is a very complex one. Chronic pain may be ‘managed’ for a few hours with alcohol but frequently you will be ‘paying’ for the pain relief for hours or even days later.
This type of ‘short-term’ reward is typical of how addictions begin – as more and more pain relief is sought by drinking alcohol at first several times a week, then every night (to take away the ‘bad’ nights that are now worse because of the alcohol) and then all weekend and so on.
The dangers of excessive drinking are well known including everything from alcohol poisoning, liver disease, high blood pressure and stroke to name just a few.
So as numbing as alcohol can feel, the downsides are extremely dangerous.
But even smaller quantities of alcohol can have significant impacts on your joint pain. Many sources, including at The Rehab Center consider that ‘The use of alcohol, whether it is abused or used in moderation, can aggravate or even cause joint pain”
To fairly analyse the relationship between alcohol and joint pain, we need to look at the issue from two angles – what general effect does alcohol have on joint pain and what specific impact does alcohol have that makes pre-existing conditions much worse?
Does Alcohol Cause Joint Pain?
Does alcohol cause joint pain? Is alcohol likely to leave you de-hydrated? Yes. Is alcohol likely to cause you eat poorly or mismanage existing medication? Yes. Is alcohol possibly the source of weight gain and will it cause more disturbed sleep? Yes.
In a healthy adult with no signs of joint pain, a small amount of weight gain, the odd night of disturbed sleep or poor hydration will not cause any noticeable problems in the short term. You are also unlikely to be on any medications to worry about mismanagement.
However, if you already suffer with even mildly inflamed joints, then alcohol can exacerbate those issues by making your body and your overall immune system much less healthy.
You may even have no visible signs of joint pain, but the effects of regular drinking can exacerbate tiny symptoms to create very noticeable pain.
General Problems With Alcohol –
Staying hydrated – One of the key factors to maintaining healthy joints (and indeed a healthy body) is to keep them lubricated. This means drinking plenty of water so your body can maintain good fluid levels in your joints. In this sense, good lubrication can also help to fight inflammation around the joints too.
Eating poorly. Drinking alcohol has continually been linked with a higher propensity to eat junk food or at least food containing high quantities of carbs, saturated fats and sugars. All of these substances are on ‘do not eat’ lists when it comes to foods that cause inflammation.
Weight Gain. Regular days of eating poorly will naturally lead to weight gain and the heavier you are, the more strain you put on your joints, the more likely you are to end up suffering with joint pain.
Behavior While Drinking. Too much alcohol is well known for changing your mindset around what is rational behaviour. Activities that would normally be considered not worth the risk, are taken on as being ‘easy’ and frequently lead to trips to Accident and Emergency departments with joint pain.
Medication Mismanagement. Even relatively light drinking can cause side effects with other pain-reducing medications. As a result, many people miss a dose or two to avoid the nasty side effects. It has also been proven that drinking even low levels of alcohol will have an impact on your memory and you are also more likely to forget to take your pain meds (if you were intending to in the first place).
In either scenario (taking pain meds and suffering side effects or not taking them at all), the end result is very likely to be the same – increased levels of joint pain.
Sleep. Sleep is essential to keep your immune system strong – stage three of the sleep cycle is when the body effectively repairs itself. While drinking alcohol can induce sleep, this sleep is known to be shallower and less restorative then a good nights rest after a cup of cocoa! As a result of drinking even small amounts of alcohol, you can delay your natural healing process, by fracturing the deep phase of sleep most known for healing.
Fatigue in itself is also well known for exacerbating feelings of pain.
Delayed Healing Process. As well as preventing your body from healing itself during sleep, alcohol is also great at supressing your bodies’ immune system – making you both more susceptible to disease and less able to fight off pre-existing conditions.
As well as the general impacts listed above of alcohol on joint pain, there are also a number of specific diseases characterised by extreme joint pain that are very clearly affected by alcohol. Below we look at each one in more detail….
Alcohol And Auto Immune Diseases
A number of auto-immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and celiac disease are caused by the bodies own auto-immune system turning on itself. The result is pain, damaged joints and inflammation. This inflammation can be greatly aggravated by a diet that contains gluten from grains such as barley and wheat.
Such grains are present in many beers, vodkas and whiskeys. Consumption of these drinks is therefore very likely to lead to a flare-up in painful joint symptoms in the following days.
Alcohol And OsteoArthritis
Alcohol is known to have a thinning effect on the cartilage that forms around joints to prevent your bones from rubbing against each other. Your cartilage itself will have been very slowly eroded from formation, but alcohol can lead to the cartilage eventually disappearing altogether.
This results in bones continuing to grow and deforming the joint, causing agony around your joint, substantial inflammation and eventually osteoarthritis.
Unfortunately, to date there are no direct studies on the effect of alcohol on osteoarthritis, although the likely impact is rational and evidenced in other areas.
Alcohol is also on the list of strict ‘no, no’ foods for osteoarthritis.
Alcohol And Gout
Beer in particular has frequently been cited as a major reason for gout attacks. In the case of alcohol and joint pain, it is the high content of purines in the alcohol that are broken down in to uric acid in the body, ultimately forming the crystals that cause gout.
These crystals then form around your joints causing sharp, stabbing pains that produce swollen, stiff joints.
In this case, alcohol not only makes gout worse, but can actually be the initial cause of the disease as well.
However, it is not just beer that causes gout and increases the chance of gout attacks – all types of alcohol including wine and spirits have been proven to increase the chance of painful gout attacks. One such study in 2015 in the American Journal of Medicine showed that just one drink in a 24hr period increased the chances of a gout attack by 36%.
Mixing Alcohol With Medication
Many people actually assume that because a medication is sold over the counter, that it wont carry severe side effects if not taken correctly. Unfortunately, this simply is not true.
Many of the most common anti-inflammatory drugs used for mild/moderate joint pain such as aspirin and ibuprofen (both NSAIDs or ‘Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs’) have serious interactions with even small amounts of alcohol. The potential side effects include stomach ulcers, GI bleeds and even liver damage.
The risk is even greater with prescription-only opioids that are frequently given for more severe joint pain. Opioids such as morphine, codeine and oxycodone can have serious side effects of their own. Mixing them with alcohol greatly increases the chances of addiction and of depression.
Furthermore, mixing opioid pain killers with alcohol can also cause respiratory depression – a condition that instigates very slow and very difficult breathing. All of the side effects of mixing alcohol with opioid painkillers can be fatal.
And it doesn’t even stop with opioids – indeed any medication for joint pain is likely to have side effects that will be exacerbated by alcohol. You could always check with your doctor before taking ANY drug with alcohol. It is very likely they will not recommend it – and for good reason.
The Final Word –
Alcohol and joint pain are complicated adversaries. On the face of it, alcohol numbs the pain, but in truth it only makes it worse. How much worse depends completely on you, as pain is subjective so no two people will ever feel exactly the same level of pain.
And unfortunately, most of us enjoy an alcoholic drink. Advocating a ‘tee-total’ lifestyle would be like recommending a health food only diet – great in theory, but not everyone will be able to stick to it, even if the health benefits would be huge.
But the flip side is there are serious consequences of alcohol consumption for those that already have some form of joint pain and even those that don’t.
Be under no illusion however, alcohol will only help to numb joint pain on a very short-term basis. Furthermore, even over a period of just 24 hours the net benefits are very much back in the negative territory.
The only way to remain ‘numb’ thanks to alcohol is to keep drinking it – which will ultimately make you an alcoholic. Drink it if you wish, but the advice of any pain specialist (or doctor) will always be ‘don’t drink for the pain’.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes – but for differing reasons. If you check out our article on Gout (inflammatory arthritis), you’ll see that that the wheat/ grain contain are high in purines that in turn lead to an increase in uric acid production and ultimately urate crystals which attack your joints as Gout.
With rheumatoid arthritis, it weakens your immune system allowing your white blood cells to attack your own joints harder.
If you look at osteoarthritis, the main issue concerns the dehydrating effect of alcohol, since water naturally lubricates the body and its joints.
In summary the answer is yes – but in different ways for different forms of arthritis.
The simple answer is yes. The more complicated answer would be to explain just how many ways alcohol weakens your immune system.
The most obvious reasons are the dehydration effect on your bodies ability to heal itself and the disturbed sleep that prevents the ‘deep sleep’ also part of the bodies healing process.
On it’s own, drinking small/ moderate amounts of wine is fine and has certain health benefits too.
However, if you suffer with any number of inflammatory conditions such as arthritis. gout, back pain or even following surgery, then drinking any form of alcohol will slow the healing process down and will contribute to extending the time that you suffer with inflammation.
So on it’s own it drinking wine won’t cause inflammation, but it will greatly exacerbate any existing inflammatory condition.
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