Does Alcohol Affect Arthritis?

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If you have arthritis, it is essential to understand how certain maladaptive behaviors affect your condition. Due to alcohol’s accepted use and high accessibility, drinking is a common habit many people disregard until it becomes a significant problem. Alcohol affects and contributes to many illnesses, including arthritis, and can interact with medications designed to relieve this condition. People with arthritis who misuse alcohol are urged to seek professional help if they find it challenging to curb or quit drinking.

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 What Is Arthritis?

More than 100 arthritis-related conditions have been identified. All are characterized by joint inflammation and pain that often worsens with age. Nearly 60 million adults are diagnosed with arthritis. (1) Although older adults are at a higher risk for arthritis, it occurs among people of all ages. Common forms of arthritis include osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, infectious arthritis, and gout. (2)

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is, by far, the most common form of arthritis and most often affects the hands, spine, knees, and hips. It is caused by joint cartilage wear and tear.  (3) Cartilage is a complex, tremendously strong, flexible fibrous tissue on the ends of bones where they connect to form a joint. Cartilage allows bones to move in a joint without friction. (4)

With enough damage, cartilage can be worn down entirely to the extent that bones are touching, resulting in pain and restricted movement. This wear and tear can happen over many years or suddenly due to a joint injury or infection. Osteoarthritis also alters bones and deteriorates tissues that connect muscle to bone and hold the joint together. Damaged cartilage in a joint can inflame the lining and result in pain. 

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis occurs when a person’s immune system attacks the joint capsule lining—a dense, tough membrane that encloses the joint. During rheumatoid arthritis, this lining becomes warm, tender, and swollen. Eventually, this condition destroys cartilage and results in bone erosion, joint deformity, and associated pain. It often occurs in the hands, wrists, elbows, shoulders, feet, spine, knees, and jaw. (6)

Infectious Arthritis

Infectious arthritis can be triggered by a bacterial, fungal, or viral infection that travels to a joint from another body part, often the knee. Symptoms such as swelling, fever, and pain can be sudden and severe. Fortunately, antifungals or antibiotics can effectively address these infections rapidly, and those that are viral can be fought by the body and do not need medical intervention. However, some individuals require infected fluid to be drained to reduce inflammation and prevent joint damage. (7)

Gout

Gout (8) is a form of arthritis occurring when uric acid (9) accumulates in the joints, forming crystals that cause pain and swelling, often in the big toe. These painful episodes, referred to as gout attacks, can affect anyone but tend to develop earlier in men than women, who typically don’t experience gout until post-menopause. One significant risk factor for gout is heavy drinking. (10)

How Does Alcohol Impact Arthritis?

Risk factors for arthritis include genetic predisposition, age, sex, previous joint injuries, and being overweight. (11) Alcohol can exacerbate arthritis due to its inflammatory effects and trigger flare-ups, especially gout attacks.

Drinking can irritate degenerative joint pain from osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. It’s best to avoid consuming high amounts of alcohol, especially beer, as it’s high in purine, which produces uric acid in the body. As we’ve noted, uric acid triggers gout attacks. (12)

Alcohol can also compromise the immune system (13), making it harder for the body to fight joint pain triggers and heal from an injury. In these instances, alcohol is likely to worsen symptoms of arthritis. 

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Can You Drink While Using Rheumatoid Arthritis Medication?

Risks of arthritis flare-ups from alcohol use also depend on the medicine the person takes for their condition. One signification complication of taking arthritis medication with alcohol is liver damage. Prescription drugs, such as leflunomide, methotrexate, and other antirheumatic drugs, can elevate liver enzymes, leading to liver damage. (14)

Considering the many known effects of alcohol on the liver, drinking with arthritis medications can increase the risk of liver disease and failure. When you combine these with alcohol, there is always a risk of escalating liver toxicity.

Additionally, people taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as naproxen and ibuprofen, to address arthritic flares should also avoid consuming alcohol. NSAIDs can irritate the stomach lining, possibly leading to ulcers or gastrointestinal bleeding. (15) 

Does Alcohol Relieve Chronic Pain?

There is a common misconception that alcohol misuse can be safely used as an effective pain reliever for chronic pain. Although some people report that drinking small amounts of alcohol can reduce pain, it does not accomplish this by relieving symptoms directly. 

Instead, alcohol intoxication depresses the central nervous system, and one result is that pain sensations may be interpreted as being less intense. This is not a long-term remedy for several reasons, but mainly because alcohol has inflammatory properties and can worsen pain over time.

Many risks can outweigh the perceived benefits of using alcohol to treat pain. These include interactions with pain medications, intensification of pain sensation, and, most importantly, the risk of addiction.

Other Adverse Effects of Alcohol

Regular alcohol use can cause tolerance, meaning ever-increasing amounts are needed to achieve desired effects, such as feelings of relaxation and pain relief. Unfortunately, tolerance feeds into chemical dependence because the more you drink, the more your brain and body rely on alcohol. This can make it very challenging to quit drinking and prevent relapse.

Moreover, alcohol-dependent individuals will experience withdrawal symptoms when they discontinue use. These range from minor to life-threatening, but any severity can be highly unpleasant. Withdrawal from chronic drinking can also increase pain sensitivity, motivating some to continue alcohol misuse in an attempt to reverse this worsening of pain. (16) Over time, heavy drinking can also induce alcohol-related peripheral neuropathy, the most common neurologic condition associated with alcohol use disorder. (17)

Individuals physically dependent on alcohol may also progress to full-blown addiction, which includes a problematic behavioral component. Moreover, excessive drinking often leads to an intense obsession with alcohol, compulsive use, and repeated relapses. 

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Coping With Arthritis by Seeking Treatment for Alcohol Misuse

Chronic pain, such as arthritis, is an issue that compels many people to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. This may seem like a reasonable remedy at first, but long-term substance misuse will not effectively relieve pain. In fact, it can cause inflammation that is likely to worsen arthritis symptoms over time. If you have arthritis and a drinking problem, you are urged to seek professional help. 

Contact Guardian Recovery today if you struggle with arthritis pain and alcohol dependence. We will provide you with a free, no-obligation assessment and health insurance benefits check. You’ll be connected with an experienced Treatment Advisor to learn more about our recovery center, levels of care, and customized treatment plans. We are committed to helping individuals break free from the cycle of addiction and reclaim healthy, fulfilling lives.

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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

(1)(5)https://www.arthritis.org/about-arthritis (2)https://www.niams.nih.gov/health-topics/arthritis (3)https://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/basics/osteoarthritis.htm (4)https://www.physio-pedia.com/Cartilage (6)https://www.niams.nih.gov/health-topics/rheumatoid-arthritis (7)https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/musculoskeletal-and-connective-tissue-disorder s/infections-of-joints-and-bones/acute-infectious-arthritis (8)https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/high-uric-acid-level/basics/causes/sym-20050607 (9)https://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/basics/gout.html (10)https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/onlinemedia/infographics/excessive-alcohol-use.html (11)https://arthritis.ca/about-arthritis/arthritis-risk-factors (12)https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780123738h912000262# (13)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4590612/ (14)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK548725/ (15)https://www.aafp.org/pubs/afp/issues/2000/0501/p2863.html (16)https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/using-alcohol-to-relieve-your-pain (17)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4978516/

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

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Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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