If you experience chronic joint pain, you may want to think twice about alcohol. Discover the surprising link between alcohol and joint pain.
An estimated 70 million people in the US struggle with a form of chronic pain. Furthermore, over 20 million adults are diagnosed with osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative joint disease, and one of the most common sources of joint pain. Joint pain is a daily reality for millions of people, and in some ways, has become an accepted part of aging.
However, age is just one small part of the bigger picture. There are lifestyle factors and concurrent health conditions that can exacerbate cases of joint pain, complicate the treatment of conditions like arthritis, and negatively impact your quality of life.
One of the more well-known and researched risk factors is alcohol consumption. Yes, there have been studies linking moderate alcohol consumption to improved heart health and reduced risk of joint pain, especially rheumatic joint pain. But these studies are controversial, to say the least, and more and more data is pointing to the conclusion that alcohol’s health benefits are miniscule, if at all statistically relevant. Alcohol’s negative impact on health, on the other hand, is much better established in current literature.
But does drinking affect joint pain as well? And to what degree? How much can you drink without risking your joint health, or exacerbating a chronic health condition?
How Alcohol Contributes to Joint Pain
Alcohol is considered a psychoactive substance, meaning it affects the brain. To be more exact, alcohol (or ethanol) is a central nervous system depressant, i.e., a very, very mild tranquilizer or sedative. The immediate impact alcohol has on the brain causes alcohol intoxication, which is what being drunk means: slurred speech, slowed reactions, lowered inhibition, and coordination problems. Excessive alcohol use can cause nausea, vomiting, and memory loss – this is called alcohol poisoning. At higher levels, this can cause death.
Most people don’t drink lethal doses of alcohol. But even moderate consumption can take its toll over time. Alcohol negatively impacts the heart, liver, kidneys, pancreas, throat, gut, lungs, and bones, and is associated with cancers of the liver, colon, breast, oral cavity, and rectum.
There is little evidence directly linking alcohol to worsening symptoms of arthritis, or other forms of joint pain. But what we do know is that alcohol can be linked to other health conditions that make joint pain worse or affect your body’s resilience against pain perception.
- First, peripheral nerve damage. Continued alcohol consumption can cause alcohol-related neuralgia or nerve pain. This is because of the effect of high BAC (blood alcohol content) on the protective sheathing of your individual nerve cells. Signs of alcoholic neuropathy usually begin in the extremities, such as the hands, feet, and joints.
- Second, alcohol consumption can negatively impact chronic health conditions such as arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and gout, due to alcohol’s interactions with common rheumatoid medications (including DMARDs and antimetabolites) and alcohol’s effects on the body’s concentrations of uric acid (increasing symptoms of gout). Using arthritis medication and alcohol can sometimes lead to stomach ulcers and liver damage.
- Third, alcohol consumption can negatively impact the gut’s ability to absorb and process crucial nutrients, in addition to the risk of colorectal cancer. More and more research lends credence to the theory that diet plays an important role in joint disease management, both through weight control and reducing inflammation through micronutrients. Alcohol consumption can kneecap a healthy diet’s potential to help manage the symptoms of arthritis.
- Fourth, certain alcohols are more likely to trigger gout-related joint pain or cause an inflammatory reaction. Grain-based alcohols like beer contain gluten, while distilled liquors and wine are rich in purines.
- Fifth, alcohol is a diuretic. The more you drink, the quicker and stronger its effects on your endocrine system, resulting in an increase in dehydration. Dehydration is generally unpleasant, but it comes with the added side effect of worsening joint pain due to a loss in body fluids resulting in lower joint lubrication.
For some people with arthritis or other forms of chronic joint pain, drinking alcohol may be a no-go due to its interference or compounded effect with medications, or its effects on the disease itself (in the case of gout). In other cases, drinking alcohol might not directly affect your joints, but could impact your long-term joint health due to nerve damage, poorer gut health, or bone density and dehydration.
Tackling the Effects of Alcohol Consumption
If you find that your pain is getting worse after a drinking session, or that your drinking may be affecting your symptoms, then consider a plan of action to quit drinking for a while. Discuss your options with a doctor – if your treatment is for an acute flareup, then you may be able to continue drinking moderately after you have concluded your treatment. Alternatively, if you are having trouble quitting, your doctor may be able to refer you to a specialist for withdrawal symptoms and substance use management.
More than just quitting, taking a proactive approach towards improving your diet and intake can help reduce flare-ups and better manage your pain symptoms.
Key anti-inflammatory foods like ginger, turmeric, oily fish, and nuts can help combat arthritis, in addition to a well-balanced diet and movement. Consider replacing sugary drinks with water or other refreshments, and cut down on your overall intake of sugar and processed foods. Keep track of your daily water intake to keep your joints lubricated.
Movement can help, as well. Studies show that exercise can reduce cravings for alcohol and even sugar while helping you improve both your circulation and strength. Consider exercises that feel manageable, and don’t cause pain – long walks instead of jogging, water aerobics, or stationary biking, for example. Strength training, such as lifting weights, can also help combat osteoarthritis and improve bone density.
Cutting down on alcohol is a positive step towards improving your health and may play a role in reducing the impact of arthritis on your life. With dedication and support, you can successfully quit drinking and experience a significant return in quality of life.