By John Salak –
Drinking too much alcohol is never a good idea, although defining too much can be tricky. Over time, excessive alcohol consumption can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, various cancers and digestive problems. These can all be life-threatening.
Now, however, those who abuse alcohol and or chronically consume it may make themselves more sensitive to pain, according to scientists at Scripps Research. Extreme alcohol intake, in fact, makes people more sensitive to pain through two different molecular mechanisms—one driven by alcohol intake and one by alcohol withdrawal.
“There is an urgent need to better understand the two-way street between chronic pain and alcohol dependence,” reported senior author Marisa Roberto, Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience at Scripps Research. “Pain is both a widespread symptom in patients suffering from alcohol dependence, as well as a reason why people are driven to drink again.”
If the Scripps Research study proves accurate, it means tens of millions of Americans are facing increased pain risk. It is estimated that close to 30 million people in the U.S. abuse alcohol and two or three times that many may drink excessively.
Excessive drinking includes binge drinking and heavy drinking. Binge drinking is defined as four or more drinks on a single occasion by women and five or more for men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heavy drinking covers at least eight drinks a week for women and 15 for men.
The Scripps team recognized that a high percentage of those who abuse alcohol or who drink excessively experience persistent pain before starting its research. This discomfort includes alcoholic neuropathy, which is nerve damage that causes chronic pain and other symptoms. Earlier studies also found that alcohol abuse is linked to how the brain processes pain signals, as well as changes in how immune system activation occurs. In turn, this pain can lead to increased alcohol consumption. Unfortunately, during withdrawal, people dealing with alcohol abuse can experience allodynia, in which a harmless stimulus is perceived as painful.
The Scripps study focused on the underlying causes of these different types of alcohol-related pain by using different groups of adult mice each separately dependent on alcohol. Ultimately, more research is needed, but Roberto’s team identified associations and connections to alcohol and pain that are likely to be valuable going forward.
“Our goal is to unveil new potential molecular targets that can be used to distinguish these types of pain and potentially be used in the future for the development of therapies,” explained co-senior author Nicoletta Galeotti, Ph.D., associate professor of preclinical pharmacology at the University of Florence.
The study’s results also provide another reason to moderate alcohol consumption for virtually everyone.