Alcohol Consumption and Chronic Pain

New findings increasingly show harmful side effects of regular alcohol consumption, even when alcohol is consumed “in moderation.” To that point, a recent scientific paper highlighted a growing body of evidence suggesting alcohol consumption increases pain sensitivity as opposed to dulling it, as many previously thought.

Confused man reading article about alcohol on a phone

Alcohol and pain. For decades, many have thought that alcohol consumption reduces or dulls pain due to the depressant nature of alcohol. However, new findings show that when one drinks regularly and over time, even if they are consuming alcohol “in moderation,” it is more likely that they will become more sensitive to pain, a physiological phenomena that is then exacerbated when they attempt to withdraw from alcohol.

New Research Offers a Different Perspective on Alcohol and Pain

An April 2023 study worked on by Scripps Research scientists and published in the journal of the British Pharmacological Society sought to determine the effects alcohol had (if any) on pain sensitivity. Titled Chronic alcohol-induced mechanical allodynia by promoting neuroinflammation: A mouse model of alcohol-evoked neuropathic pain, the findings from the study were quite alarming.1

Right away, the researchers recognized that many people seek out alcohol as a way to cope with physical pain. “There is an urgent need to better understand the two-way street between chronic pain and alcohol dependence,” said senior author of the study Marisa Roberto, Ph.D., the Schimmel Family Chair of Molecular Medicine and a professor of neuroscience at Scripps Research. “Pain is both a widespread symptom in patients suffering from alcohol dependence, as well as a reason why people are driven to drink again.” However, the idea that alcohol helps numb pain may be little more than a myth. Not only can alcohol use over time trigger the development of numerous chronic diseases like heart disease, stroke, liver disease, and some cancers, but it seems the depressant nature of alcohol recedes with continued consumption while, at the same time, pain sensitivity trends upward during moments when one is not drinking.2

The researchers found that more than half of Americans who are addicted to alcohol also experience some persistent pain. Many say they drink alcohol to feel less pain. However, the researchers connected most of the pain alcohol users experience to the following:

  • Alcoholic neuropathy, a condition in which the individual experiences alcohol-induced nerve damage that causes chronic pain and other unwanted symptoms.
  • Allodynia, a harmless physiological stimulus caused by alcohol withdrawal and perceived by the brain and nervous system as painful.

Alcohol consumption also changes how the brain processes pain signals and how immune system activation occurs, both of which can lead to more sensations of physical pain.

The researchers showed that alcohol consumption itself may be a leading cause of users’ physical pain, even as users turn to alcohol as a means of coping with pain symptoms.

What Are Some of the Other Effects of Alcohol on the Body?

Man in a hospital from alcohol

A growing body of research has bolstered the hypothesis that alcohol has almost innumerable negative and no positive or healthy effects on the human body. From a physiological perspective, alcohol causes harm to the following:3

  • The brain. A mind-altering substance, alcohol interferes with and hampers the brain’s critical communication pathways. When consumed over time, alcohol can alter how the brain looks and works, which can disrupt the user’s mood and behavior. When alcohol is consumed to excess, it can prevent the user from thinking clearly, impairing their coordination and movement.
  • The heart. The heart is one of the organs most harmed by alcohol consumption, especially when one drinks excessively or drinks alcohol consistently over time. Alcohol consumption can lead to unwanted and serious conditions like high blood pressure, stroke, arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat), and cardiomyopathy (a dangerous stretching or drooping of the heart muscle).
  • The liver. At least 47% of the roughly 100,000 liver disease deaths recorded each year involved alcohol consumption as a predictor and leading factor in the onset of liver disease. Alcohol consumption can cause several dangerous liver health conditions like steatosis, fibrosis, cirrhosis, and alcoholic hepatitis.
  • The pancreas. As alcohol passes through the body, it causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances that can lead to pancreatitis, a serious health condition involving inflammation of the blood vessels in the pancreas.
  • Cancer. Alcohol has been shown by numerous studies to be directly linked to several cancers, including oral cavity cancer and cancers of the esophagus, larynx, pharynx, liver, colon, and rectum, to name a few.

Alcohol consumption has also been directly connected to depression, stroke, and stomach bleeding, all of which increase pain levels in patients.

Beyond the physiological effects of alcohol, hard data shows the harm alcohol has on people’s lives, families, children, other Americans who don’t drink, and the economy. For example:4

About 6% of the U.S. adult population engages in heavy drinking regularly, and at least 23% drink excessively at least once per month. About 29.5 million Americans meet the criteria for alcohol addiction.

Approximately 140,000 Americans died from alcohol abuse in 2021, up from 99,000 in 2020 and 79,000 in 2019, making alcohol one of the leading causes of preventable death in the United States.

Even when not fatal, alcohol use severely affects the health and vitality of those who consume it excessively. Between 2006 and 2014, the rate of alcohol-related ER visits increased by 47%, an additional 210,000 alcohol-related ER visits. Alcohol consumption accounts for about 18% of all ER visits nationwide.

More than 13,000 Americans are killed in alcohol-related automobile accidents yearly, many of whom are not drinking but are hit by drunk drivers.

Approximately one in ten U.S. children grow up in a home with at least one parent who is addicted to alcohol, a fact that dramatically affects the child’s home life and general well-being. Children who have at least one parent who is addicted to alcohol are themselves more than four times as likely to develop an alcohol addiction later in life than children of non-addicts.

How to Know When to Help Someone Who Uses Alcohol

Helping an alcoholic, family intervention

A critical sign of alcohol consumption becoming alcohol misuse is when someone uses alcohol to “solve a problem.” This is when alcohol consumption becomes a coping mechanism, something the person is doing to cope with another non-optimum condition. When someone begins using alcohol in a way they believe will “numb their pain” or accomplish some other goal, that is a sign of alcohol addiction.

If you know someone who is using alcohol to cope with something else in their life that they are struggling with—be it chronic pain or anything else—please do everything you can to get that person help. Don’t wait until it is too late for them or until they become just another statistic.


  1. BPS. “Chronic alcohol induced mechanical allodynia by promoting neuroinflammation: A mouse model of alcohol-evoked neuropathic pain.” British Pharmacological Society, 2023. ↩︎

  2. SD. “How alcohol consumption contributes to chronic pain.” Science Daily, 2023. ↩︎

  3. NIAAA. “Alcohol’s Effect on Health: Alcohol and the Human Body.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2023. ↩︎

  4. NIAAA. “Alcohol’s Effect on Health.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2023. ↩︎


After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective …
read more