A common misconception about chronic pain is that it only affects our physical health. However, a chronic pain condition can significantly impact how we move through the world and influence all dimensions of our wellbeing. It can also affect our relationship with alcohol. If you’re navigating chronic pain and unhealthy alcohol use, you are not alone. Simultaneously addressing both conditions is possible and often requires looking beyond immediate physical sensations. Let’s dive into why alcohol misuse and chronic pain commonly co-exist, and explore steps you can take to feel better.
Identifying chronic pain
Chronic pain usually refers to long-lasting pain that continues beyond a recovery period of 3-to-6 months. Chronic pain may be caused by an initial injury, or occur alongside a chronic health condition. Recognizing chronic pain can be a process of trusting the messages your body is giving you, especially if the initial trigger for your pain is no longer present. This does not mean the pain is not real. In fact, it’s indicative that what you’re feeling needs more time to heal. Understanding and addressing the complexities of chronic pain will provide relief and lead to a higher quality of life. One of those insights involves recognizing the impact alcohol has on your chronic pain, and vice versa.
The risks of using alcohol to cope with pain
When confronted with emotional and/or physical pain, alcohol can provide short-term relief, but ultimately has long-term consequences. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, recent studies suggest that around 1 in 4 adults who experience chronic pain report self-medicating with alcohol, and 43–73 percent of people with alcohol use disorder (AUD) report experiencing chronic pain.¹
Drinking is known to numb the excitatory response of the nervous system, causing a temporary soothing effect and feeling of pain relief. However, studies have shown that for alcohol to reach the medical levels of pain moderation, one would typically have to consume much more than what’s considered healthy alcohol consumption by the CDC². This excessive alcohol consumption can be a sign of alcohol use disorder, and put individuals at risk of developing physical alcohol dependence.
Furthermore, using alcohol to self-soothe can cause issues with:
- Peripheral neuropathy
- Vitamin levels
Deficiencies in vitamins, like thiamine, reduce your body’s ability to maintain healthy cell development. Moreover, alcohol can also have harmful interactions with both prescription and over-the-counter medications, leading to exacerbated chronic pain symptoms over time. While the short term may give you a “feeling” of pain relief, the long term effects can increase your pain severity.
There is no shame in having used alcohol as a coping mechanism. Many people drink to soothe uncomfortable feelings, whether those are psychological (ex. anxiety symptoms or depressive thoughts), physical (ex. chronic pain symptoms), or a combination of both. The persistent difficulty and demands of managing a chronic illness can be incredibly challenging, and seeking relief is only human. As I often witness with my clients, learning more about how drinking habits affect overall wellness can be incredibly empowering, and lead to both finding self-forgiveness, and adopting new forms of self-soothing.
How to manage chronic pain without alcohol
Build a self-care practice
When working with patients with a chronic pain condition, I always recommend creating a self-care plan. It may not seem appealing at first, but dedicating a small portion of your routine to stress and pain reduction can have long-term benefits for your overall health. Stress has been found to intensify chronic pain symptoms, which is why stress management is a core component of caring for your health and wellness.
A self-care plan may include:
- Identifying your pain signals and warning signs of potential flare-ups and preparing an action plan when they do occur
- Engaging in hobbies, eating habits, and forms of exercise that promote physical and mental health
- Prioritizing stress-relieving activities such as yoga, meditation, baths, and other comforts
- Establishing an alcohol-free nighttime routine and maintaining a regular sleep schedule
- Recognizing loved ones you can reach out to when you need support and utilizing them whenever necessary
- Consulting with trusted medical professionals when exhibiting chronic pain symptoms
Your self–care plan can evolve and grow, and it’s okay to start small. This plan might look like incorporating things like stress relief, nutrition, and hydration into your daily rituals. I also always make a case for developing a meditation practice, which is helpful in soothing the emotional pain and distress that may accompany physical pain. Mindfulness can significantly improve nervous system regulation and make all other self-care steps more achievable. If you’re looking for a place to start, join me in the free support group I lead dedicated to exploring mindfulness. Adopting one self-care habit can set the stage for overall healing. All of this can be done gradually and is often more effective when built in incremental steps.
Seek support through expert care
In addition to self–care, I also recommend exploring external support for accountability, guidance, and encouragement. Talk to your healthcare provider to see if pain medication for pain management is appropriate for you. Additionally, consider these components of online alcohol treatment, which can help you address chronic pain and drinking habits simultaneously:
- Physician care: A physician can review your medical history and help you formulate a treatment plan that aligns with your specific needs. That may include medication to stop drinking, among other recommendations about how to reach your goals.
- Therapy: Alcohol is often used as a coping mechanism for chronic pain, and treatment can help you build new tools. Cognitive–behavioral therapy is especially helpful in revealing the inner-wisdom you already possess about how to manage alcohol cravings and building skills to tolerate negative feelings. Your therapist will build a curriculum specific to you and your needs.
- Community support: Hearing from others navigating chronic pain and sobriety or moderation can provide relief and encouragement. You can join us for our free, therapist-moderated support group: “Changing your relationship with alcohol while managing chronic pain,” and discuss topics such as distress tolerance, what ‘emotional sobriety’ means to you, and so much more.
Your journey changing your relationship with alcohol and managing chronic pain will be enriched when shared and experienced with others. There’s truth in the saying, “when you heal, I heal.” Adopting a sobriety or moderation goal can afford you the space and energy to find a long-term chronic pain management plan that works for you. One of the hardest truths to accept in any chronic pain journey is that healing is a lifelong process. We have to grieve what we once had, and can celebrate what’s to come. With time, those with chronic pain often find that a new appreciation for life emerges. This gratitude is found not just in what it means to “be able” to do something but also in allowing things to be just as they are. We’re here to help you get there.