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Alcohol as Analgesic: Older Drinkers Numb the Pain


Many older adults suffer from pain and a significant proportion have unhealthy alcohol use. To examine the relationship between pain and alcohol problems among the elderly, researchers studied 401 community-dwelling older adults (aged 62-72 years) at baseline and 3 years later.

  • At baseline, a greater proportion of problem drinkers* than nonproblem drinkers reported moderate to very severe pain (about 43 percent versus 30 percent) and functional impairment from pain (about 33 percent versus 18 percent).
  • A greater proportion of problem drinkers used alcohol to manage pain (about 38 percent versus 14 percent). These proportions were higher among those with moderate to very severe pain (about 58 percent versus 21 percent).
  • Baseline use of alcohol to manage pain predicted more chronic health problems and injuries in men and more drinking problems in women at the three-year follow-up, particularly among those with more alcohol problems at baseline.

Comments by Peter Friedmann, MD, MPH:

Older adults, especially those with drinking problems, often use alcohol to manage pain. Besides the immediate dangers of mixing alcohol with nonsteroidal and opioid analgesics, using alcohol to manage pain increases the risk of poor health in the future. This study suggests that clinicians need to ask patients with problem drinking about pain and ask patients with pain about alcohol use; counsel both groups about the risks of using alcohol as an analgesic; and help them find safer, more effective methods of pain relief.

* = drinking problems as determined by the Drinking Problems Index questionnaire.

Brennan PL, Schutte KK, Moos RH. Pain and use of alcohol to manage pain: prevalence and 3-year outcomes among older problem and non-problem drinkers. Addiction. 2005; 100(6): 777-786.

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