In yet another example of the benefits of knowing when to say when, it appears that moderation may be the key to successfully managing the pain of fibromyalgia and the consumption of alcohol.
According to a new study published in the journal Arthritis Research & Therapy, low and moderate drinkers reported fewer of symptoms of fibromyalgia than teetotalers. Conversely, too much alcohol reversed this effect.
Researchers from the Mayo Clinic and the University of Michigan looked at nearly 950 patients with fibromyalgia. Most were women with an average age of 49. They were grouped by their weekly level of alcohol consumption: no or little alcohol (less than three drinks a week); moderate (three to seven drinks); and heavy (more than seven drinks).
After adjusting for age, employment status, education level, body mass index and opioid use, researchers found that low and moderate drinkers had better scores for physical function, their ability to work, the number of work days missed, fatigue and pain.
And moderate drinkers seemed to have less pain than low or heavy drinkers, even when the results were controlled for confounding factors. Similar results were seen for the quality of life scale, including social functioning, vitality and general health.
One explanation for why moderate alcohol use appears to lessen pain may have to do with its effect on the inhibitory neurotransmitter Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA), which is low in the brain in fibromyalgia patients, amplifying the nervous system’s reaction to pain.
“Alcohol binds to the GABA receptor in the central nervous system which in turn may turn down pain transmission,” said lead author Dr. Terry Oh, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota..
“However, the effects of alcohol may also be due to improved mood, socialization and tension, and while moderate drinkers have fewer symptoms there are still many questions about how this happens.”
Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition thought to affect one in 20 people worldwide and is characterized by widespread pain, tenderness, and a decreased pain threshold to pressure and other stimuli. It is often associated with fatigue, lack of sleep, and cognitive symptoms as well headaches, irritable bowel and bladder symptoms, and depression.
Although the cause of fibromyalgia is unclear, research indicates that it is primarily a central amplification disorder of pain perception resulting from neurochemical imbalances in the central nervous system.
There is no known cure; treatment is based around pain management and lifestyle changes.
Since it is uncertain whether the effect of alcohol on fibromyalgia symptoms might be due to its psychological benefits as a stress reliever, researchers are quick to point out that alcohol consumption has both harmful and beneficial effects on health.
They note that the study had several limitations, including the fact that the amount of alcohol consumed by patients was self-reported and may be biased because of possible under-reporting. They also did not consider the type of beverage consumed.
“We urge caution when generalizing the findings of this study because of the relatively small number of moderate and heavy drinkers in the study. Furthermore, we do not recommend that patients with fibromyalgia start or increase drinking for their symptoms.”
“One study showed that alcohol abuse was one of the most frequent psychiatric problems in patients with chronic pain, and a significant portion of chronic pain patients had a history of alcohol abuse before the onset of their pain.”
“Therefore, our findings should be interpreted carefully,” they wrote.