Date of release: Thursday, May 4, 2017

Trevor ThompsonDrinking a couple of pints can be highly effective at relieving pain, according to new research.

A review study led by the University of Greenwich has found that drinking alcohol can reduce pain levels by nearly a quarter. Researchers found the more beer people drank, the less pain they felt. Raising a person's blood alcohol content to 0.08 per cent gives the body a "small elevation of pain threshold", and a "moderate to large reduction in pain intensity ratings".

The study, led by Dr Trevor Thompson from the university's Faculty of Education & Health, has been published in the Journal of Pain. It compared 18 different controlled experiments involving more than 400 people 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," says Dr Thompson, Senior Lecturer in Psychology. "Consuming around four units of alcohol – about two pints of beer or medium glasses of wine – resulted in a drop of 24 per cent drop in people's pain ratings". 

Just how alcohol has such an effect is not clear. 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.

Researchers say the hope is that 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 toxic, addictive or harmful effects of alcohol itself.

"Although evidence from other studies is somewhat patchy regarding the effectiveness of certain over-the-counter painkillers for the type of experimentally induced pain we looked at, we were not able to make any direct comparisons with these drugs due to limited available studies," Dr Thompson adds. "Nevertheless, it is clear that alcohol may provide potentially strong pain relief".

He also 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.

Dr Thompson's primary research area is pain management. A specialist in statistics, he has published in several leading titles including Pain and Journal of Pain.

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