For SELF, by Zahra Barnes.
We hate to be buzzkills, but if you recently heard that a study proved beer is a better painkiller than medications like Tylenol, that’s not quite the case. In reality, the study results aren’t as cut and dried as that. The meta-analysis in question was published in The Journal of Pain in December 2016, and it’s making waves again (we get it — the weather warms up, everyone gets extra excited about the prospect of a cold beer, us included).
In the meta-analysis, researchers looked at 18 different studies involving 404 total participants in an effort to study beer’s potential to dull pain intensity and boost pain threshold. They found that achieving a blood alcohol content (BAC) level of 0.08, or three to four drinks, was associated with a rise in study participants’ pain thresholds, although the effect was small.
The more impressive effect was on pain intensity—once study participants reached 0.08 BAC, they experienced a moderate to large decrease in pain intensity. “We found that when people were given alcohol, their pain ratings were around 25 percent lower compared to when nothing was administered or a placebo was given,” study coauthor Trevor Thompson, Ph.D., faculty of education and health at London’s University of Greenwich, tells SELF.
Both effects were related to the amount of alcohol ingested: With every additional 0.02 percent increment in blood alcohol content (around one drink), the participants’ pain thresholds generally increased and pain intensity generally decreased.
Overall, alcohol may be an “effective analgesic,” aka painkiller, the study authors concluded. But that’s nowhere near the full story, so it’s not time to ditch your painkillers for brews instead, Thompson says. Here’s why.
For starters, the studies included in this meta-analysis all looked at one category of pain.
Whether beer is actually a “better” painkiller than something like Tylenol is “actually really difficult to say,” Thompson says. This is partially because the meta-analysis was limited in scope. “The studies that we looked at used short-term, acute pain that was induced by experimental methods,” Thompson says. Think: dunking your hands in cold water and dealing with pain from heat or electricity. This is as opposed to trials that examine how over-the-counter or prescribed pain medications treat longer-term persistent pain.
“Even though experimental pain inductions offer a great deal of experimental control, short-term pain and long-term persistent pain are different in many ways,” Thompson says, explaining that it’s not necessarily accurate to think this meta-analysis’ results apply to all sorts of pain across the board. “Chronic pain tends to be more intense, produces greater distress, is less controllable (in experimental pain studies you can just take your hand out of a bucket of ice cold water whenever you want), and it involves several different neural mechanisms,” he says. Apples and oranges, basically.
Beyond only looking at short-term pain rather than any sort of chronic condition, there was another major limitation. “It may be that these painkilling effects are reduced for those who consume alcohol regularly, but we simply didn’t have enough data to be able to test this,” Thompson says. “We would really need more than the 18 relatively small studies that we were able to look at before we can understand the effects of alcohol on pain.”
So, experts aren’t sure why alcohol may have this effect on pain, but there are some theories, like that alcohol’s mechanism of depressing the central nervous system results in lowered pain intensity and higher pain threshold, women’s health expert Jennifer Wider, M.D., tells SELF. At this point, science doesn’t have a clear answer.
There’s also the fact that you’d have to drink a lot to experience alcohol’s maximum painkilling effects.
The data suggests that in order to reap the most painkilling benefits, you’d need to go above and beyond guidelines for low-risk drinking, or no more than three drinks on any given day for women and no more than seven drinks per week, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. For men, low-risk drinking is limited to no more than four drinks in a day and no more than 14 drinks per week.
“Although most painkilling drugs are clearly not completely safe, it is quite clear that alcohol can be severely toxic when consumed regularly in sizable quantities,” Thompson says. Beyond the immediate danger of alcohol poisoning, over time, drinking too much can contribute to health issues like high blood pressure, cancer, and liver disease. “Ironically, [drinking that much] could even present an increased risk for developing other future chronic pain conditions,” Thompson says.
Instead of this meta-analysis being a sign that beer is an appropriate painkiller, the data gives a clue as to why people with chronic pain conditions might self-medicate with alcohol and wind up developing substance abuse problems — even though it didn’t specifically look at chronic pain patients. “It suggests that raising awareness of alternative, less-harmful pain interventions to vulnerable patients may be beneficial,” Thompson says.
So, sure, next time you’re craving a beer, go for it — but if what you’re really looking for is something to deal with pain, you’re better off grabbing actual medicine instead (here are some of the best pain relievers for whatever hurts).
“For people who are in physical pain, consulting a doctor to get properly treated is much more prudent than numbing the pain with alcohol,” Dr. Wider says. “Alcohol will never address the root cause of the problem.”
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