A Study Links Beer to Pain Relief—But There’s a Catch

No, drinking isn't a replacement for over-the-counter pain relievers.

Aches, pains, and sore body parts come with exercise, old age, and the wear and tear of everyday life. Sometimes, it helps to take an over-the-counter pain reliever like aspirin or ibuprofen. But some researchers wondered whether alcohol has an impact on pain relief. Here’s what they found.

Beer and pain relief

A study published in the Journal of Pain links beer to pain relief. For their research, scientists from London’s Greenwich University conducted 18 experiments in which 404 participants were given either an alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverage. The team then administered 13 pain-threshold tests and nine tests that rated pain intensity. They found that alcohol reduces pain by about 1.2 points.

Patients had to drink quite a bit of alcohol to arrive at that small decrease, according to Didier Demesmin, MD, the director of pain medicine at Saint Peter’s University Hospital, who not involved with the study. Drinking three or four beers would get an average person to the legal intoxication limit while only providing modest pain relief.

It’s still unclear how alcohol reduces pain

Researchers aren’t sure if the pain relief comes from an effect on pain receptors or by lowering anxiety, which could decrease the perception of pain. “It is not clear from the study whether the alcohol has a purely analgesic effect, which is to say that it blocks pain receptors in the body so that a person does not feel pain, or is it that there is euphoria experienced as a result of the alcohol and so this affects the perception of pain,” Dr. Demesmin says.

No doctors recommend alcohol for pain relief

Researchers noted that people who suffer from chronic pain tend to drink more due to the pain-dulling effect. However, that doesn’t make it a good choice for pain relief. In addition, there’s not much of a difference between the mild effects of alcohol and the full effects of intoxication, warns Mark Boswell, MD, a professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine at The University of Toledo’s College of Medicine and Life Sciences. With proper use, regular pain medications are safer and more effective than drinking.

Experts point out that these studies aren’t suggesting drinking as an alternative for pain relief. In fact, Jan Campbell, MD, the Director of the Addiction Treatment Center at the University of Kansas Health System, says there’s never a time when alcohol is recommended for pain control. The risks of drinking to provide pain relief include chronic health issues, such as liver and cardiovascular damage, as well as addiction. “When one attempts to self-medicate with alcohol for chronic pain issues, then problems with alcohol tolerance and even alcohol dependency may ensue,” adds Nesochi Okeke-Igbokwe, MD, a New York City-based internist.

Avoid all of these risks by consulting with your doctor for the best way to treat your pain. “Some of these are over the counter, some require a prescription, and some are techniques we can all learn,” Sean Mackey, MD, PhD, the chief of the division of pain medicine at Stanford University says.

Sources
  • Journal of Pain: "Analgesic Effects of Alcohol: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Controlled Experimental Studies in Healthy Participants"
  • Didier Demesmin, MD, the Director of Pain Medicine at Saint Peter's University Hospital
  • Mark Boswell, MD, a professor of Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine at The University of Toledo's College of Medicine and Life Sciences
  • Jan Campbell, MD, the Director of the Addiction Treatment Center at the University of Kansas Health System
  • Nesochi Okeke-Igbokwe, MD, a New York City-based internist
  • Sean Mackey, MD, PhD, the Chief of the Division of Pain Medicine at Stanford

Emily DiNuzzo
Emily DiNuzzo is an associate editor at The Healthy and a former assistant staff writer at Reader's Digest. Her work has appeared online at the Food Network and Well + Good and in print at Westchester Magazine, and more. When she's not writing about food and health with a cuppa by her side, you can find her lifting heavy things at the gym, listening to murder mystery podcasts, and liking one too many astrology memes.