Ah, Alcohol. Beer. Sweet booze. Glorious hooch. It can do great things (and terrible things), and scientific studies can never seem to agree about how great/terrible the sauce is. But a meta-analysis of eighteen studies published in The Journal Of Pain suggests one rather clear benefit; alcohol can be a more effective painkiller than acetaminophen (Tylenol). Or, as Ogden Nash might have said, acetaminophen is acceptable but liquor is quicker.
Dr. Trevor Thompson from the University of Greenwich reviewed the results of eighteen controlled experiments involving 404 participants regarding the analgesic effects of alcohol and found that a blood alcohol content (BAC) of approximately 0.08% (about three or four beers) produced a small elevation of pain threshold and a moderate to large reduction in pain intensity ratings. It was the equivalent of dropping your pain rating an average of 1.25 points on a zero to ten point scale (or a frowny face instead of a crying frowny face on the helpful wall chart in the emergency room).
Perhaps not surprisingly, boozing it up some more had greater analgesic effects, with every 0.02% increase in BAC increasing the pain threshold and reducing pain intensity almost a third as much as the original 0.08% did. You’d have to go to about 0.15% BAC to drop 2.5 points on the zero to ten point scale, and this is assuming a type of pain not exacerbated by alcohol like migraines are.
The downside, of course, was summed up by Thompson, “Strongest analgesia occurs for alcohol levels exceeding World Health Organization guidelines for low-risk drinking and suggests raising awareness of alternative, less harmful pain interventions to vulnerable patients may be beneficial.” In other words, patients with chronic pain are at a higher risk of alcohol abuse, something that isn’t news to anyone familiar with the phrase “drink the pain away.”