A study conducted by the University of Greenwich found that the more beer people drank, the less pain they felt – with figures showing alcohol can reduce pain levels by nearly a quarter.
The study, led by researcher Trevor Thompson, found that raising a person's blood alcohol content to 0.08% gives the body a "small elevation of pain threshold", and a "moderate to large reduction in pain intensity ratings".
Pain reduced by just two pints of beer
Under controlled conditions, more than 400 people were exposed to different types of experimentally-induced pain such as cold, heat and pressure pain.
"We found robust evidence that alcohol is an effective painkiller," Thompson said. "Consuming around four units of alcohol – about two pints of beer or medium glasses of wine – resulted in a 24% drop in people's pain ratings."
Thompson told The Morning Advertiser he started looking at the effect of alcohol on pain because he wanted to test the common anecdotal claim that it relieves pain.
“Despite it seeming obvious to many that a relationship exists, results from individual studies have not been especially consistent. We suspected this may be due to variation across studies in how pain was induced and assessed, the size of the sample used and the amount of alcohol given. We wanted to provide a systematic evaluation of this.”
Targets nerve receptors
But exactly how alcohol suppresses pain is not clear. Thompson said one theory is that it may act on the same nerve receptors as drugs like ketamine, to blunt the sensation of pain. Another idea is that it may reduce pain indirectly by lowering anxiety levels.
However, he added: “This could potentially explain why alcohol abuse could occur in chronic pain patients - as opposed to increased use due to lowered mood, anxiety or, a general lifestyle changes due to restricted mobility from the pain.”
Researchers hope it may be possible to produce novel painkilling drugs in the future by isolating the key compounds responsible for the painkilling effects, but without the negative effects of alcohol itself.
“I hope that future work will help us understand the ways in which alcohol can provide pain relief. This will inform the development of future medication that is both more effective and safer than what we have at the moment,” he said.
However, Thompson warned that the amount of alcohol consumption needed to provide any sort of sustained, long-term pain relief “could lead to a range of serious health problems”, and even increase the likelihood of developing a long-term persistent pain condition.
UK Government guidelines for low-risk drinking indicate that people should consume no more than 14 units of alcohol a week for both men and women, which is around six pints of beer or six 175ml glasses of wine.