A couple of studies in recent years report that drinking alcohol can help relieve fibromyalgia pain and symptom severity. That seems contradictory since most of us with fibromyalgia cannot tolerate alcohol without feeling sick. In this guest post, journalist Stephen Bitsoli explains what the research says about drinking alcohol when you have fibromyalgia.
To Drink or Not to Drink: Conflicting Findings on Fibromyalgia and Alcohol
Guest Post by Stephen Bitsoli
Fibromyalgia patients have to give up a lot in the way of diet, including caffeine, sugar, sometimes gluten, and alcohol. So it must have seemed like good news when separate reports – one in March 2013, the other in July 2015, both found that people with fibromyalgia who drank moderately suffered less pain than those who didn’t drink at all. But it’s not necessarily so.
The conventional wisdom has been that “Most people who have fibromyalgia… find that they can no longer drink much, if any, alcohol,” according to an article on HealthCentral. “While a few are able to occasionally have one or two drinks with only minimal problems, for others even a very small alcoholic beverage can trigger a severe flare or relapse that may last for days, weeks or sometimes even months.” Such disincentives mean few fibromyalgia patients need to spend time in alcohol treatment facilities; it’s difficult to drink enough to discover you’re an alcoholic.
But the 2013 study of 950 patients with fibromyalgia, conducted by The Mayo Clinic and The University of Michigan, found that “Low and moderate drinkers had better scores for physical function, ability to work, the number of work days missed, fatigue and pain, than people who abstained. Moderate drinkers who had between three and seven standard drinks a week seemed to have less pain than low or heavy drinkers, even when the results were controlled for confounding factors. … Similar results were seen for the quality of life scale including social functioning, vitality and general health.” The results were adjusted for age, employment status, education level, body mass index and opioid use.
The 2015 study of 2200 people with chronic widespread pain (CWP) – how many had fibromyalgia was unclear – conducted by Scottish researchers in the United Kingdom, found “moderate to heavy drinkers experiencing less disability” from pain. Those drinking between 15 and 20 beers or 10 and 15 glasses of wine weekly “were 67 percent less likely than those who never drink to experience disability.” (Well, I guess that’s moderate for the U.K. In the U.S., that might suggest a stay in alcohol treatment facilities.)
But before you reach for that six-pack, many doctors question whether medicating with alcohol is the right approach. And even the studies’ authors aren’t sure what it means.
Dr. Terry Oh, the leader of the 2013 study, speculated that alcohol may bind to the GABA receptor and block pain transmission, or the reduced pain may simply “be due to improved mood, socialization, and tension.”
But Marcus Beasley, one of the authors of the 2015 study, denied that it proved “that alcohol helps people with pain or not. My guess is that drinking alcohol is an indicator of good health – people drink to the extent that their health allows them, and they reduce their alcohol intake to the extent that they are prone to ill-health and pain.” With that in mind, he concludes that it would be “unwise” to advise someone with pain problems to take a drink.
Drinking alcohol to ease pain is questionable from another perspective: tolerance. If you drink a lot, you have to keep increasing how much you drink to achieve the same effect. This can lead to dependence, addiction and prolonged visits to alcohol treatment facilities.
Another problem is interaction with medications. Patients with fibromyalgia also may be on painkillers and antidepressants, most of which should not be taken with alcohol. Even acetaminophen (Tylenol) has an increased risk of liver damage when combined with alcohol.
Fibromyalgia’s symptoms are often aggravated by food sensitivities, including alcohol, which might make the cure worse than the disease. But not all fibromyalgia patients are sensitive to the same foods, and most food sensitivities affect fatigue and irritable bowel symptoms, not pain.
As with most health-related news, there’s too little research to come to a firm conclusion. If you’re suffering from fibromyalgia pain and don’t drink, and you aren’t taking any medications that make alcohol contraindicated, you might consider giving it a try.
Stephen Bitsoli writes about addiction and related subjects. A journalist for more than 20 years, and a lifelong avid reader, Stephen loves learning and sharing what he’s learned.
Have you noticed a difference in your ability to tolerate alcohol? Does drinking alcohol help ease your fibromyalgia pain or does it trigger a flare-up?
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