With the holidays approaching, so are the social events with alcohol. Alcohol has many effects on the body, and your spine is one of those affected areas. Here are some questions with answers on why drinking might be causing you pain:
Is alcohol bad for your spine? It depends. Generally, if you drink fewer than two drinks per sitting, the effects are minimal. However, if you have more than two drinks per sitting, then the effects can cause damage.
Does alcohol affect blood flow to the spine? This is an interesting question. Animal models have demonstrated that alcohol use can decrease blood flow to the spinal cord in your neck and low back. Low blood flow can delay healing and increase pain sensitivity. Repeat heavy drinking could speed up arthritis due to the body’s impaired ability to repair the surrounding tissue.
Have you ever wondered why you feel stiff and sore the morning after drinking? Alcohol acts as a muscle relaxant. The small muscles that support your spine are no exception. Your stabilizer muscles are what keep you upright when walking. Alcohol impairs your ability to control these muscles, leading to the classic slouched or stooped drinker (think of a person hunched over a table drinking and playing cards). Sitting for extended periods isn’t good for the spine to begin with, and adding alcohol increases the odds of there being a shift in the spine. Spinal shifts can make you feel like the Tin Man, where bending and turning is painful.
Alcohol is also an anesthetic, which means you feel less pain. So if you were in a position that is uncomfortable, you are less likely to feel it and re-adjust to a position that is gentler on the back. This also explains why you might sleep in an awkward position after drinking. Think of the classic “I slept on my neck wrong” feeling.
What effect does alcohol have on bone strength? Your body is constantly rebuilding itself and bones in your back are no exception. One of the minerals needed for strong bones is calcium. Alcohol decreases your ability to absorb calcium. Low calcium leads to poor bone quality and increases the risk of osteoporosis. Long-term drinkers often have significant joint pain. If you drink alcohol, consider taking a calcium supplement and/or improving your nutrition.
Why do I feel more pain the day after drinking? Alcohol is a depressant, which means it can increase psychological depression. One of the symptoms of depression is increased pain. Research indicates that some forms of depression are caused by inflammation in the body. Alcohol causes inflammation, so if you’re prone to depression, you might want to avoid alcohol. This is one of the reasons people who drink feel stiff and sore at the beginning of the week or have the “Monday Blues.”
Another reason for increased pain following drinking is the combination of dehydration and build up of acetaldehyde (the byproduct of alcohol). Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning you’ll urinate more often. If all you’re drinking is alcohol, then the risk of dehydration increases. Dehydration makes muscles feel stiff and sore.
How can I avoid these negative side effects? The easiest answer is obviously to not drink. If you enjoy alcohol, you can reduce the side effects of drinking by drinking slower, alternate drinking water, and using supplements. Spinal care is important whether you drink or not. Keep up with your daily spinal stretches and corrective exercises and make an appointment with your chiropractor!
Soledad Cepeda, M., Stang, P., & Makadia R. (2016). Depression Is Associated With High Levels of C-Reactive Protein and Low Levels of Fractional Exhaled Nitric Oxide: Results From the 2007-2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys. J Clin Psychiatry. 1666-71.
H. Wayne Sampson, Ph.D. (1998). Alcohol’s Harmful Effects on Bone, Alcohol Health and Research World Vol. 22, No. 3
Koziol-Ehni L1, Hoffman WE, Werner C, Albrecht RF. (1991). Effects of ethanol on spinal cord blood flow in the rat, J Neurosurg Anesthesiol, Dec;3(4):273-7.