Alcohol May Fuel Next Generation of Painkillers


The analgesic effects of alcohol could lead to a new class of painkillers.

Having a few alcoholic beverages may be just as effective as some pain medications from the pharmacy, according to research from a new study. The results of a meta-analysis suggest that the analgesic effects of alcohol could even lead to novel compounds that create a new class of painkillers.1

The researchers identified 18 controlled experiments, from databases such as PubMed, PsycINFO, and Embase, that demonstrated the analgesic effects of alcohol. The study aimed to determine whether alcoholic beverages decrease experimentally-induced pain and the magnitude of its effort.

The studies involved 404 participants, with alcohol versus no-alcohol comparisons for 13 tests of pain threshold and 9 tests of pain intensity ratings. An average blood alcohol content of approximately .08% (3-4 standard drinks) correlated with a slight increase of pain threshold and moderate-to-large reduction in pain intensity ratings.

A few of the studies compared the analgesic effects of OTC pain medications to alcohol, suggesting that alcohol was more reliably effective than some drugs, such as paracetamol. However, providing a direct comparison is difficult because their efficacies are examined in different ways, the researchers noted. Although typical OTC pain relief medications are evaluated based on their analgesic efficacy for “real-world” pain, such as headaches and back pain, alcohol studies tended to examine efficacy for healthy individuals exposed to pain stimuli.

“Both types of pain obviously hurt, but they also differ in several ways, with real-world pain tending to be more distressing, less controllable, and with additional neural mechanisms involved,” study author Trevor Thompson, PhD, who works with the Faculty of Education and Health at the University of Greenwich, in London, told Pharmacy Times. “As a result, you have to be careful when trying to evaluate what is best when comparing these results from a different set of studies.”

The researchers noted that the findings could explain why those with persistent pain-causing chronic conditions tend to misuse alcohol, despite its implications for additional health problems over the long term. However, for the average healthy individual, having a few beers once in a while for pain relief may not be harmful.

“For its short-term use in otherwise healthy individuals not at risk of addiction, and providing other short-term effects of alcohol did not present other risks, then it might be potentially beneficial for those who did not respond well to other more mainstream medication,” Dr. Thompson elaborated.

Although medicating with alcohol isn’t the most advisable pain solution, Dr. Thompson noted that the implications of the study’s results could potentially lead to a new class of effective painkillers that could serve as an alternative to opioid medications.

“Evidence from animal studies suggests that analgesia may be attained through different mechanisms to that of our currently most effective painkillers (strong opioids such as morphine),” Dr. Thompson told Pharmacy Times. “As such, these new compounds might work effectively in conjunction with or even as a replacement for opioids.”


  • Thompson T, Oram C, Correll CU, et al. Analgesic effects of alcohol: a systematic review and meta-analysis of controlled experimental studies in healthy participants. J Pain. May 2017. 18;5;499-510. doi:

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