A Sobering Thought: Alcohol Could Cause Chronic Pain

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Chronic Pain and Alchohol

Do you think you feel more sensitive to pain after you drink alcohol? It might not be in your head.

A new study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology found that frequent alcohol consumption could make you more sensitive to pain and could even cause you chronic and potentially irreversible pain.

Dr. Marisa Roberto, a professor of molecular medicine and neuroscience at Scripps Research, and her research team found two molecular mechanisms that could be used to treat alcohol-associated chronic pain and sensitivity.

“There is an urgent need to better understand the two-way street between chronic pain and alcohol dependence,” says senior author Dr. Marisa Roberto, “Pain is both a widespread symptom in patients suffering from alcohol dependence, as well as a reason why people are driven to drink again.”

Recent data shows that nearly 30 million people in the United States are affected by alcohol use disorder (AUD). It is estimated that 50% of these individuals will experience chronic pain of any form.

Chronic Pain and Alcoholic neuropathy

One form of chronic pain that can develop is alcoholic neuropathy. Alcoholic neuropathy occurs when excessive alcohol consumption damages nerves. If you develop alcoholic neuropathy, you may be hypersensitive to pain and experience spontaneous, burning pains.

Alcoholic neuropathy may also cause simple touches to feel painful, which is a symptom called allodynia. For example, a feather brushing your skin could cause pain.
In this study, Roberto’s team tested three groups of adult mice: mice with alcohol dependence (excessive drinkers), mice with limited alcohol use (moderate drinkers), and mice with no exposure to alcohol.

The researchers found that pain sensitivity was high after alcohol withdrawal in both the excessive drinkers and moderate drinkers. The pain sensitivity was only reversed in the excessive drinkers, not the moderate drinkers, when alcohol was available again.

To assess the molecular differences, the researchers assessed the inflammatory markers in the animals. Specific molecules were high only in the excessive drinkers. This indicates that specific molecular mechanisms could be targeted for alleviating chronic pain in individuals that have excessive alcohol consumption.

With this new study, the researchers hope the findings will be used to be able to distinguish these types of pain and to develop future therapies.

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  • Borgonetti, V., Roberts, A. J., Bajo, M., Galeotti, N., & Roberto, M. (2023). Chronic alcohol induced mechanical allodynia by promoting neuroinflammation: a mouse model of alcohol-evoked neuropathic pain. British journal of pharmacology, 10.1111/bph.16091. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1111/bph.16091

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Daniel Chantigian
Daniel Chantigian, MS
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When it comes to complex scientific or medical topics, Daniel can successfully communicate with any audience via writing, social media, lecturing, and one-on-one discussions. Over the past decade, he developed these skills as a researcher at the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic, as a lecturer at the University...

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