The anecdotal evidence is out there, and now we have scientific proof to back up the claim that alcohol is a pretty effective painkiller.
From cowboys taking a slug of bourbon before getting the bullet dug out of their shoulder to that old saw about having a drink the morning after (hair of the dog, anyone?), the belief in alcohol’s painkilling properties has been around forever.
Surprisingly, though, science has spent little time on the topic —a significant research gap, says Trevor Thompson, lead author of a new study, since there may be medical applications to be had from studying exactly how booze dulls the pain.
“If we can make a drug without the harmful side-effects, then we could have something that is potentially better than what is out there at the moment,” says Thompson of the Faculty of Education and Health at the University of Greenwich in London, to the Sun.
To that end, Thompson and colleagues reviewed 18 controlled studies looking at alcohol and the pain response, both in terms of pain threshold and pain intensity. The studies varied in their approaches, with some using electrical stimulation to produce the pain, others using pressure or a chemical or even heat-based stimulation.
Overall, the results showed that a blood alcohol content of approximately .08 per cent (equivalent to three or four standard drinks) produces a small elevation in the pain threshold and a moderate to large reduction in pain intensity ratings, estimated as a 24 per cent reduction in pain intensity.
Again, as we might have expected, the researchers found that the more alcohol consumed, the greater its analgesic effects, both in terms of pain threshold and intensity. In fact, Thompson says that alcohol’s pain-dulling effects are more powerful than those from acetaminophen (Tylenol) and comparable to opioid drugs like codeine.
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“Taken together, [the] findings suggest that alcohol is an effective analgesic that delivers clinically-relevant reductions in ratings of pain intensity, which could explain alcohol misuse in those with persistent pain despite its potential consequences for long-term health,” say the study’s authors, whose research is published in the Journal of Pain.
The authors see the results as helping to explain the relationship between chronic pain and alcohol abuse, something that has been well-observed. Studies have shown that people who report moderate to high drinking are two-thirds more likely to also report chronic widespread pain than infrequent drinkers and one-quarter more likely to report disabling pain. An estimated 25 per cent of people with chronic pain symptoms admit to self-medication with alcohol.
“Understanding causal direction in the link between alcohol use and pain is important,” say the study’s authors. “If alcohol does produce analgesia, this may encourage alcohol dependence in those with pain and suggests that efforts to promote alternative interventions for chronic pain with fewer negative health consequences (eg, physical therapy, exercise, controlled administration of pain medication) may be worthwhile.”
A 2013 report from the Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health called alcohol abuse one of the greatest public health threats in Canada. “Alcohol does not get a lot of attention in regards to prevention,” said Norman Giebrecht, lead author of the report and senior scientist at CAMH, to the Toronto Star. “We have a very high rate of alcohol problems. We have to give it more attention if we want to reduce the harm.”