I don’t know about you, but after a grueling HIIT workout, weight-training routine, or a million burpees, I’m hobbling around with stiff knees and an aching back. So like many before me, I often reach for a glass of wine to dull the pain as much as give myself a pat on the back.
But does booze really work this way? And even if it does, is it OK for you? There must be a million-plus movies in which a soldier is given a stiff shot of whiskey before having a bullet removed or a leg amputated. So logic must follow that if a glass of booze can help a fictional cowboy or WWI veteran, it should handily dull the effects of interval training on a recumbent exercise bike, right?
To bring it back to reality, we’ve all heard stories about people who took a tumble after an ill-advised drunken bike ride or fell down drunk at a party and were oblivious to the pain until the next day, but these aren’t exactly stories that offer models to live life.
So I’ve often wondered whether I’m kidding myself that my post-workout glass of wine offers any real relief. Does alcohol actually reduce my pain physiologically, or does it just relax me to the point that I care less about being sore?
Does booze really help your pain?
Researchers can’t precisely answer that question yet, but there is some evidence to suggest that booze seems to lessen pain, and a 2013 study concluded that low-to-moderate drinkers experienced fewer symptoms (including pain) of fibromyalgia. An earlier study published in the journal Disability and Rehabilitation found that men with chronic back pain who drank 12 drinks per week appeared to have less physical disability than non-drinkers.
Moderate alcohol use has also been demonstrated to have a protective effect against rheumatoid arthritis. Even the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism acknowledges that alcohol does have an analgesic (read: pain-relieving) effect, and that up to 28 percent of chronic pain sufferers use alcohol to help lessen it. "The reason alcohol dulls pain is that alcohol permeates the blood-brain barrier and could modulate the pain receptors in the brain, in the same way opioids do (unlike food, which stays in the gut)," says Bola Oyeyipo, M.D.
So, yes... but also no. It’s complicated.
Cue the Price Is Right loser horn: Although some research does suggest that booze can dull pain, you’d be hard-pressed to find a doctor who would encourage it as a treatment: The risks and downsides of alcohol consumption might negate the pain-relief positives. So check this out before you make a beeline to the bar after yoga.
For one thing, the purpose of most of these studies has been to look at alcohol use among people suffering from chronic pain; they weren’t necessarily measuring how well alcohol relieves post-workout pain, although there have been several associations noted. Put another way, these studies confirm that pain sufferers are self-medicating with alcohol, rather than trying to establish alcohol as an awesome pain reliever.
"We don’t know that drinking alcohol lessens disability from chronic pain," says Gary Macfarlane, Ph.D., chair of clinical epidemiology at the University of Aberdeen in the UK and co-author of a study on alcohol use and arthritis pain. "All we can say is that people with chronic pain who drink alcohol are less disabled. It could be that people who are less disabled undertake more activities, including going out and socializing, and in so doing, drink alcohol. So it’s important to be very careful in the interpretation."
Additionally, we can’t extrapolate from studies of chronic pain whether alcohol might have similar effects on post-workout soreness or acute pain (pain that tends to be sharper and lasts only three to six months), Macfarlane says.
That doesn’t stop us from trying. A meta-analysis of 18 studies concerning alcohol and pain attempted to do just this last year. Researchers tested pain tolerance of around 400 healthy people (mostly men) after experimentally induced pain and found that the higher the blood alcohol level, the higher the pain-relief effects of alcohol.
"It was short-term pain of various types that we assessed, so it'd certainly be reasonable to hypothesize that alcohol could result in a reduction in acute pain generally," says Trevor Thompson, Ph.D., senior lecturer at the University of Greenwich in London and lead author of the study. "Although you'd have to be cautious in generalizing to muscle soreness specifically, as a few or no studies we examined used exercise as a pain stimulus."
Another note: You’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating: Don’t mix pain killers, even over-the-counter ones, with alcohol. Taking aspirin and alcohol damages the stomach lining, mixing alcohol and acetaminophen can lead to liver damage, and ibuprofen combined with booze can cause liver damage. So, yeah. Stay safe.
The more regularly you drink, the less booze works as a painkiller.
Thompson says it's likely that the more you habitually drink, the less potent the painkilling effect. "But without the data to test this, I'd just be guessing, to be honest," he says.
Increasing consumption to get the same pain-relief benefit could raise the risk that you could become dependent upon alcohol, which isn’t where anyone wants to go. There are plenty of well-established negative effects of alcohol dependency, after all, including damage to your heart, liver, and brain function. Dependence also means that you need to consume more alcohol to get the same pain-relieving effects. In other fun news, moderate drinking was linked to brain atrophy in a recent study, so… yeah. Buzzkill.
What constitutes "moderate consumption" is another thing we should discuss: That’s considered "up to" one drink per day for women. So if you blow your wad on a post-workout glass of wine, you can’t have one with dinner too—if you want to adhere to the CDC’s guidelines.
So what should we be doing?
The bottom line? Light to moderate drinking probably won’t significantly damage your health, but Thompson says it would be wise to explore other, healthier options to deal with pain. In addition to reducing your risk for health problems, even from a pain-management perspective, it’s best to keep boozing to a minimum.
"Our research has shown that people who drink moderately—one to two drinks a day—have the lowest levels of disability," Macfarlane says. "The effect is not seen at high levels of alcohol consumption, and we understand from much previous research that consuming alcohol at higher levels is bad for your health overall."
Personally, I will probably still have a glass of wine after a hardcore workout. But I’ll try to keep it to one glass and keep it framed in my mind as an indulgence, not a pain eraser. Maybe I’m in good company: Certified trainer Cary Raffle has a 90-year-old client, Dan, who skis, plays tennis, and enjoys a "wee dram" (usually a scotch rocks or martini) after his training sessions, Raffle says.
"I don’t have a scientific answer or recommendation, but as far as I’m concerned, anyone would do well to follow Dan’s regimen!" Raffle says. "And I wouldn’t presume to suggest any changes."
Virginia Pelley is a freelance writer in Tampa, Florida. Follow her on Twitter @VirginiaPelley.