Fibromyalgia & Alcohol Use: Does Drinking Cause Muscle Pains & Aches?
What is Fibromyalgia?
The term fibromyalgia is derived from the Latin and Greek language; tissue (fibro), muscle (myo), and pain (algia). Fibromyalgia is a long-lasting disorder characterized by chronic and widespread pain and tenderness throughout the body.1
Fibromyalgia affects about 2% (4 million) of U.S. adults.2 It’s most prevalent among middle-aged women, who encompass 75-90% of those diagnosed.3 Individuals with rheumatic diseases (rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, lupus, and ankylosing spondylitis), depression, anxiety, chronic back pain, or irritable bowel syndrome may be more susceptible to fibromyalgia.1
How Is It Diagnosed?
Fibromyalgia is diagnosed based on medical history and a physical exam that generally assesses tenderness to pressure at 19 points on the body.4 This physical exam helps health care providers rule out other causes of muscle pain. Unlike other conditions, fibromyalgia can’t be detected using X-rays or blood tests, though health care providers might order these tests to rule out other diseases.4
Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid gland) and polymyalgia rheumatica, an inflammatory disorder that causes pain and stiffness, often mimic fibromyalgia. However, the difference is these conditions cause inflammation at the joints and tissues, fibromyalgia does not.4
Those diagnosed with fibromyalgia often suffer from severe fatigue, sleep problems, and memory and concentration issues and experience symptoms for more than three months.4 Often individuals with fibromyalgia experience anxiety and depression, so it’s not uncommon for individuals diagnosed with fibromyalgia to also receive a co-occurring psychiatric diagnosis.2
Signs & Symptoms of Fibromyalgia
Fibromyalgia has no identified cause. There are, however, some risk factors that make individuals at a greater risk for developing the disease. Factors such as age and the existence of lupus or rheumatoid arthritis may make individuals more susceptible to developing fibromyalgia.2 The most common signs and symptoms of fibromyalgia include:1,2.4
- Chronic pain or stiffness throughout the body.
- Muscle and joint stiffness.
- Extreme fatigue.
- Difficulty sleeping.
- Certain parts of the body may be tender to the touch.
- Tingling or numbness in the hands and feet.
- Sensitivity to light, noise, odors, and temperature.
- Tension headaches and migraines.
- Constipation, bloating, abdominal pain, irritable bowel syndrome, and other digestive problems.
- Overactive bladder.
- Pelvic pain.
- Chronic issues with anxiety
- Chronic issues with depression
- Temporomandibular disorder, known as TMJ, includes face or jaw pain, jaw clicking, and ringing in the ears.
Treatment for Fibromyalgia
There is no cure for fibromyalgia, so treatment works to manage and improve the symptoms using a mix of therapies and medications, and may include:1,2,4
- Medications. There are a number of medications used to treat fibromyalgia. These include:
- Drugs that help control pain levels and alter brain chemicals (serotonin and norepinephrine), such as duloxetine (Cymbalta), milnacipran (Savella), amitriptyline (Elavil), and others.
- Antidepressants, which may be prescribed for some individuals.
- Pharmaceuticals that work to block overactive nerves involved with pain transmission, which may include pregabalin (Lyrica) or gabapentin (Neurotonin).
- In some cases, prescription opioid drugs like tramadol may be used to treat pain associated with fibromyalgia in the short term.
- Over-the-counter medicines like acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil), and naproxen (Aleve), while not effective at treating fibromyalgia pain, may be used to treat its triggers.
- Physical activity/therapy. Physical therapy and exercise can help to reduce pain, increase flexibility, improve mood, and aid individuals with fibromyalgia in becoming more functional. Exercise programs for patients with fibromyalgia should be regular, low-impact, and involve stretching and numerous movements. For many individuals, finding an activity they enjoy doing means it’s easier to stick with it. Thus, walking programs, yoga, tai chi, dance, pool exercises, and similar programs can help ease fibromyalgia symptoms.
- Psychotherapy. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) aims to change the way individuals think about pain and helps them learn symptom reduction skills that can lessen pain. For individuals with fibromyalgia, CBT strategies might concentrate on stress reduction, mood improvement, progressive relaxation, and helping individuals become more functional by increasing their motivation. Related treatments, such as mindfulness, a meditation practice, has been used to effectively help alleviate fibromyalgia symptoms, as well.
- Alternative therapies. While there’s little scientific evidence of effectiveness, alternative therapies—including acupuncture, ultrasound therapy, music therapy, art therapy, chiropractic and massage therapy, and more—can be useful in treating the symptoms of fibromyalgia.
Alcohol Use and Fibromyalgia: The Research
It is well known that alcohol use has several potential detrimental effects to physical and mental well-being. There are several research studies that have investigated the connection between chronic pain and alcohol use. Many of these studies have concentrated on severe forms of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis; however, there are studies that have looked at the prevalence of alcohol use and potential side effects of alcohol use in individuals with fibromyalgia.
There are a few studies that suggest that individuals with fibromyalgia, who engage in low-to-moderate alcohol consumption (defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as 1 or less drinks per day for women and 2 or less drinks per day for men)5 may feel less pain, have fewer mood-related symptoms, and be able to move better.6
However, there’s also research indicating that consuming alcohol as a mechanism for coping with pain is dangerous. One study found that 28% of people who experience chronic pain turn to alcohol to mitigate it. Over time, tolerance develops to alcohol’s pain-relieving effects, and it takes more alcohol to get the same results. Increasing the amount of alcohol consumed can lead to other problems, including alcohol dependence.7
Research suggests that those who suffer from chronic pain are at an increased risk of having an alcohol use disorder (AUD), a medical condition defined by uncontrollable use of alcohol despite harmful consequences.8 Chronic pain has the propensity to initiate alcohol use and trigger relapse in those recovering from AUD. Similarly, AUD-related changes in the brain can cause chronic pain.8
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Does Drinking Cause Fibromyalgia?
While there’s nothing that suggests that consuming alcohol causes fibromyalgia, some individuals report that alcohol makes symptoms flare up, but this is strictly anecdotal evidence.
Some of the medications prescribed to individuals with fibromyalgia, however, provide warnings against alcohol use while taking the drug. Taking these drugs and drinking alcohol can enhance alcohol’s effects and lead to liver injury, overdose, and death.9,10
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- National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. (June 2021). Fibromyalgia.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (January 6, 2020). Arthritis: Fibromyalgia.
- Arout, Caroline A., Ph.D., Sofuoglu, Mehmet, M.D., Ph.D., Bastian, Lori A., M.D., M.P.H., and Rosenheck, Robert A., M.D. (2018). Gender Differences in the Prevalence of Fibromyalgia and in Concomitant Medical and Psychiatric Disorders: A National Veterans Health Administration Study. Journal of Women’s Health, 27(8), 1,035-1,044.
- American College of Rheumatology. (March 2019). Fibromyalgia.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (December 20, 2020). Alcohol and Public Health: Dietary Guidelines for Alcohol.
- Scott, J. Ryan, M.P.H., Hassett, Afton L. Psy.D., Schrepf. Andrew D., Ph.D., Brummett, Chad M., M.D., Harris, Richard E., Ph.D., Clauw, Daniel J., M.D., and Harte, Steven E., Ph.D. (2018). Moderate Alcohol Consumption is Associated with Reduced Pain and Fibromyalgia Symptoms in Chronic Pain Patients. Pain Medicine, 19, 2,515-2,527.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Using Alcohol to Relieve Your Pain: What Are the Risks?
- Maleki, Nasim, Tahaney, Kelli, Thompson, Benjamin L., Oscar-Berman, Marlene. (2019). At the Intersection of Alcohol Use Disorder and Chronic Pain. Neuropsychology, 33(6), 795-807.
- DailyMed. Milnacipran (Savella).
- DailyMed. Duloxetine.