Alcohol, Alcoholism, And Pain: A Complicated Relationship

Posted on: October 25th, 2019

We live with a lot of pain as human beings. Our fragile physical systems are vulnerable to a tremendous number of offending diseases, injuries, illnesses, and more, which risk our quality of life and more. Dealing with pain, both internal and external can seem like the primary purpose of our lives. We go to great lengths to avoid pain physically, as well as emotionally- sometimes to our own detriment, causing ourselves more pain than we had to begin with.

Alcoholism is certainly a manifestation of such a conundrum. Seeking to alleviate pain, we seek a drink. We seek a drink more and more to feel painless and less, but find, somehow, we feel more and more pain- and alcohol works less and less to alleviate that pain, causing a whole new painful cycle of suffering.

Alcoholism and Pain

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism cites in “The Complex Relationship Between Alcohol and Pain” on the Science Blog, that as of 2016, 20 percent of adults in the US were living with chronic pain they defined as “most days” within the last six months. A large percentage of people in the US who are living with chronic pain turn to alcohol use, misuse, and abuse, as a means of self-medicating.

“Recent studies suggest that around 1 in 4 adults in chronic pain report self-medication with alcohol,” the blog elaborates, “and 43-73 percent of people with alcohol use disorder (AUD) report experiencing chronic pain.” As the title of the blog suggests, the relationship between pain and alcohol is complicated. Self-medicating with alcohol is rarely a successful attempt long-term and can lead to greater long-term difficulties, resulting in longer-term pain.

Drinking as Self-Medication Does Not Work

Using alcohol as a form of self-medication is not a sustainable approach to pain management. Though alcohol can act as a pain reliever temporarily, alcohol does not consistently provide relief. The NIAAA cites that for alcohol to be effective as a form of pain management, “it requires doses consistent with binge drinking to do so.” Binge drinking is defined as the consumption of alcohol in any matter which brings the blood alcohol level to 0.08. The euphoria and sense of painlessness which comes with alcohol intoxication is minimal, research has found, even when alcohol is consumed at a binge drinking level. Drinkers can tolerate more pain, less intensely, but this doesn’t eradicate or solve the problem of pain- “and long-term excessive drinking,” the organization emphasizes, “makes physical pain worse.”

Drinking to medicate emotional pain holds as much promise as drinking to medicate emotional pain. The effects of alcohol in numbing out difficult emotions are temporary and lead to the same kind of tolerance as using alcohol to medicate physical pain. In between the kind of drinking which would be required constantly to provide “pain relief” are symptoms of withdrawal, causing emotional irritability to worsen.

When Escaping Pain Turns into Inescapable Pain

“Deaths of Despair” is a term created by Princeton University economists who studied the rates of death in US populations after the end of World War II. The 2015 study found that a seemingly sudden rise in death was caused by complications of drugs, alcohol, and suicide. In “Alcohol and Deaths of Despair”, the NIAAA explains that “Alcohol use is increasing among middle-aged adults in the United States and is more common when people are faced with stressful circumstances, such as job loss, divorce, economic downturns, chronic pain, or psychiatric conditions—all factors related to deaths of despair.” Notably, the organization cites chronic pain- meaning physical pain- and circumstances which could cause emotional pain, like divorce, as contributing factors to increased alcohol use, in addition to contributing factors to “deaths of despair”. The likelihood of suffering emotionally with various mental health disorders like depression, bipolar, PTSD, and more, is significantly higher for those who develop AUD, alcohol use disorder. Contemplating suicide, or attempting suicide, is a greater likelihood as well.

Alcoholic Death Does Not Have to Be the End

The cycle of pain and suffering, seeking self-medication, and becoming addicted to alcohol, does not have to be the end of our lives. Not only are we capable of living better, but we are also deserving of living better. There is an array of medical, psychological, holistic, and other approaches to treating our pain internally and externally. Through the recovery process, we can find freedom from the complicated relationship between alcohol and pain.

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