In a study examining how alcohol use affects back pain, researchers at the University of Michigan Health System also found people with chronic back pain who reported heavy drinking showed less physical disability on a series of functional tests than light drinkers. Further, women seldom reported heavy alcohol use, suggesting doctors need to be more careful about prescribing narcotic pain relievers.
"Be careful if you're a heavy drinker with pain, because doctors don't seem to pay attention to the interaction between alcohol and drugs," says study co-author Andrew Haig, M.D., associate professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the U-M Medical School and director of the Spine Program at UMHS.
"The combination of alcohol and narcotics increases the sedative effect of both, probably the desired effect amongst people with pain, but in significant quantities the combination could lead to respiratory depression," says study co-author Ethan Booker, M.D., an emergency medicine resident at the University of Chicago. In addition, painkillers that combine acetaminophen and narcotics, such as Vicodin, could cause severe liver damage when mixed with alcohol.
The study, published in the December issue of Disability and Rehabilitation, is the first to look at the relationship between alcohol and chronic back pain. It looked at 283 patients who had debilitating back pain for at least three months. Patients underwent a comprehensive assessment that included psychological tests, questionnaires related to medical history and pain, and a half-day of functional testing with rehabilitation professionals. The physical testing included exercises and tasks designed to assess the level of disability.