Whether stemming from injury, disease, or drug and alcohol use or abuse, alcohol can be the primary factor of joint pain or an exacerbating contributor.
Any discussion about the relationship between joint pain—technically called “arthralgia”—and alcohol use must begin with a brief primer of the myriad causes of joint pain itself. Among the causes of joint pain are the more-than 100 varieties of arthritis, with rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, and gout being some of the most common types. Arthritis is defined as the inflammation of a joint or several joints, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.
What Is A Joint?
A joint simply is an area where two or more bones meet, with a cushioning layer of cartilage covering the bone ends. The cartilage lubricates the joint, dispersing pressure evenly and reducing friction. A capsule prevents bones from moving too much, with ligaments holding joints in place. A bursa sac provides further protection between either sides of a joint.
Alcohol’s Role In Joint Pain
The role of alcohol in joint pain can be either a causal effect—as in the cases of alcoholic neuropathy and alcoholic polyneuropathy—or a contributing factor in an existing condition. A common result of alcoholism or heavy alcohol use in the development of neuropathy (mononeuropathy) or polyneuropathy, known together as peripheral neuropathy. Polyneuropathy is more prevalent among alcoholics and heavy drinkers and typically isn’t the result of an injury, trauma, or prolonged or repetitive actions (such as carpal-tunnel syndrome), although alcohol abuse can contribute to a worsening of conditions.
Neuropathy—nerve damage—affects some 20 million people in the United States, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). More than 100 kinds neuropathies—each possessing unique diagnoses and symptoms—have been identified, and result from damage to the body’s axons or myelin sheaths. Axons are filament-like portions of nerve cells; the myelin sheath is a fatty protein covering axons.
Pinpointing the root causes of alcoholic neuropathy if difficult, according to the National Institutes of Health’s U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Alcohol poisoning of nerves, coupled with poor nutrition often associated with heavy alcohol consumption, can lead to alcoholic neuropathy. It’s estimated that as many as 50 percent of heavy alcohol users develop alcoholic neuropathy.
A common complaint among people diagnosed with alcoholic neuropathy is tingling and pain in the limbs, especially extremities like the hands and feet (patients often describe the sensation as “pin pricks” or the feeling of limbs being “asleep”). Other joints—especially the knees, hips, and ankles—also can be affected.
Role Of Alcohol in Joint Pain And Neuropathy
Alcohol can play three primary roles in the development of alcoholic neuropathy and joint pain:
- Heavy alcohol use can cause direct nerve damage in joints.
- Many heavy drinkers fail to eat properly and thus lack essential vitamins and other nutritional components.
- Alcohol often interferes with medication effectiveness.
Alcohol can cause direct interference with nerve communications between the brain, the spinal cord, and the body. Aside from tingling and pain, this nerve damage can produce cramps and muscle spasms, weakness of muscles, muscle atrophy, and movement problems, especially within joints.
Joint problems and pain attributed to nutrition deficiency are caused by several factors, including high levels of purine in some foods and in alcohol. Purine in the body, when digested, forms uric acid, which typically is evacuated through urine. Excess purine makes it difficult for the body to eliminate high levels of uric acid, which can crystallize in joints and surrounding tissues, leading to swelling, pain, and the possible onset of various types of arthritis (especially gout). Beer, in particular, contains high levels of purine.
The lack of other minerals and vitamins experienced by many heavy drinkers that can cause joint pain and alcoholic neuropathy include folic acid; thiamine, or vitamin B1; niacin (vitamin B3); pyridoxine (vitamin B6); pantothenic acid (vitamin B5); Vitamin B12; Vitamins A and E; and biotin.
Alcohol also may interfere with any medications prescribed for joint-pain relief. According to the Arthritis Foundation, alcohol not only can mitigate the benefits of many common anti-inflammatory drugs—ibuprofen and naproxen, for example, often referred to by the brand names Motrin and Aleve—but also may produce other ill effects such as ulcers and stomach bleeding.
Pre-Existing Conditions and Alcohol
Determining whether alcohol is a cause or simply an exacerbating component of a physical ailment, including joint pain, can be troublesome; it’s often a chicken-and-egg proposition. However, consensus is fairly unanimous regarding alcohol’s deleterious effects on many medical conditions, even pre-existing ones. Diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, high cholesterol levels, cancer, infections, age, and pregnancy are only a few conditions that can be complicated by alcohol consumption. Behavior—smoking and poor eating habits, for instance—also contribute to problems when combined with alcohol. Smoking also is associated with people who drink alcohol to excess.
Of particular note is the negative role alcohol can play in pre-existing conditions where joint pain is a symptom of an underlying factor. Diabetes is especially troublesome; many symptoms such as joint pain and tingling of extremities can mimic alcoholic neuropathy. These symptoms also are prone to increased severity when accompanied by heavy alcohol use.
Many pre-existing conditions are the result of injuries or other physical trauma. Knee, shoulder, ankle, and hip injuries are common; many lead to long-term joint pain. Again, alcohol can negatively impact treatment of such conditions, as well as making conditions worse through excessive consumption and consequent nerve damage. Alcohol abuse also can make diagnosis of pre-existing difficult.
The first step in treating joint pain—whether or not alcohol may be a culprit—is to diagnose the underlying problem for the pain. This first step can help eliminate various possible causes, including the role that alcohol plays in the condition. Some tests that may reveal or eliminate causes, according to U.S. National Library of Medicine’s Medline Plus website, include:
- Measuring electrolyte levels
- Conducting an electromyography (EMG).
- Checking liver and kidney functions.
- Performing nerve conduction tests (NCVs).
- Performing thyroid function tests.
- Performing nerve conduction tests.
- Looking at vitamin and mineral levels.
- Doing skin and nerve biopsies.
- Conducting an upper GI and small-bowel series.
- Performing an esophagogastroduodenoscopy (EGD).
- Having an MRI completed.
If, indeed, an alcohol-related joint-pain diagnosis is reached, several options may be considered. Any treatment options, though, probably will include a reduction or complete elimination of alcohol consumption. Otherwise, the effects of any medications administered or therapy provided will be mitigated, possibly severely. Physical therapy and occupational therapy regimens can address areas such as walking-balance training, strengthening weak joints and muscles, and performing range-of-motion exercises.
Addressing lifestyles and behaviors is an integral part of any alcohol-related, joint-pain protocol. Alcohol-consumption should be reduced or eliminated; smokers should cut back or quit; weight loss may be necessary, and regular exercise encouraged; vitamins could be prescribed; anti-inflammatory or pain-relief medications may be indicated; and pre- or co-existing conditions such as diabetes must be treated in conjunction with alcohol issues.
Don’t Wait—Find Out If Your Joint Pain May Be Alcohol Related
If you’re suffering from joint pain and think that it may be related to alcohol abuse—or for any questions or concerns you have about alcohol abuse or treatment contact Alcoholtreatment.net today at 1- 800-247-9938. Your call is one hundred percent confidential.
University of Maryland Medical Center – Arthritis
Arthritis Research UK – What is a joint and how does it work?
The University of Chicago – What Is Peripheral Neuropathy?
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) – About
Harvard Health Publications – Risk of Gout