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Link between alcohol and fibromyalgia symptoms

By Lilian Anekwe

People who suffer from a condition called fibromyalgia and who drink small or moderate amounts of alcohol have symptoms that are less severe than those who don’t drink at all. But drinking too much alcohol can make the symptoms worse.

What do we know already?

Fibromyalgia causes many symptoms, but the most common one is pain that can spread across the whole body. It affects around nearly 1 in 20 people worldwide. People with fibromyalgia may have other symptoms, such as higher sensitivity to pain and physical sensations - just being touched can feel painful. They may also have difficulty sleeping, muscle stiffness, and headaches.

People with fibromyalgia are advised to exercise and stay generally as healthy as possible. Part of advice on general healthy living is to consume only a moderate amount of alcohol. In the UK, the Department of Health describes a moderate amount as three to four units of alcohol a day (roughly a pint of high-strength beer) for men and two to three units of alcohol a day (roughly a large glass of red wine) for women.

Research in people with other similar illnesses, such as some types of chronic joint pain and rheumatoid arthritis, suggests that people who drink moderately have less severe symptoms and a better quality of life than people who don’t drink at all. Up to now, there hadn’t been any research into the link between moderate alcohol consumption and fibromyalgia.

In this study, researchers asked 946 people with fibromyalgia how often they usually drank alcohol. One drink was defined as a can (350 millilitres, or ml) of high-strength beer, a medium (150 ml) glass of wine, or a large measure (45 ml) of spirits. The participants also filled in questionnaires about their fibromyalgia symptoms and their general physical health. The researchers then looked for a link between how much alcohol people drank and how severe their symptoms were.

What does the new study say?

Overall, people who drank moderately were less affected by symptoms and had a better quality of life than people who people who didn’t drink at all, or who were infrequent drinkers (fewer than three drinks a week) or heavy drinkers (more than seven drinks a week).

Compared with people who either didn’t drink at all or who drank heavily, people who drank low or moderate amounts of alcohol:

  • Were less likely to be bothered by pain or other symptoms of fibromyalgia

  • Were more able to do physical activities

  • Were more able to do everyday things like housework, climbing stairs, and driving.

How reliable is the research?

This type of study relies on people being honest and accurate about how much alcohol they drank. If people overestimate or underestimate how much alcohol they drink, this can affect how reliable the results are.

Although the study was of a reasonable size, some of the groups, particularly people who drank moderately or heavily, were quite small (around 3 in every 100 people). Small groups can make results less reliable are more likely to be affected by chance. Out of the 946 patients in the study, the majority (893) were women, so we can’t be sure if the results affect men in the same way.

Another reason for caution is that people in the study who drank moderate amounts of alcohol were the most likely to have a higher social status, be better educated, and to be employed. Of course, all these things didn’t happen as a result of their moderate drinking. So, although the study does suggest that drinking in moderation can help with the symptoms of fibromyalgia, managing those symptoms is clearly about much more than how much people drink.

What does this mean for me?

The researchers urged people not to read too much into a study like this one, as there is a limit to what it can tell us. Importantly, they do not recommend that people with fibromyalgia start or increase drinking to try and help their symptoms.

We still aren’t sure why alcohol might affect fibromyalgia symptoms, and how this affects quality of life. The researchers speculate that alcohol might have psychological benefits as a stress reliever, or that it may affect the balance of the body’s natural chemicals in the central nervous system and this might affect people’s perception of pain. But until we know more it’s best to stick to general guidelines about alcohol, and discuss with your doctor how to manage your symptoms.

Source:

Kim CH, Vincent A, Clauw DJ, et al. Association between alcohol consumption and symptom severity and quality of life in patients with fibromyalgia. Arthritis Research & Therapy. Published online 14 March 2013.

Mar 15, 2013