Effects of oral alcohol administration on heat pain threshold and ratings of supra-threshold stimuli.
Background and aims Evidence for analgesic effects of oral alcohol consumption on heat pain has recently been documented in a placebo-controlled, randomized and double-blind design. We aimed at further investigating these effects and now set the focus on pain threshold and the ratings of supra-threshold pain to cover most of the pain range. Moreover, we now firstly evaluated sex differences in these effects. Methods We investigated 41 healthy participants (22 females) in a randomized, double-blind and placebo-controlled design and targeted two different moderate breath-alcohol levels of 0.06% and 0.08%. Before and after an alcoholic or placebo drink, contact heat was applied at the forearm. Subjects evaluated pain threshold (method of adjustment) and rated pain intensity and pain unpleasantness of supra-threshold stimuli (intensity: threshold +3 °C; duration: 5 s). Results Analgesic effects taking the form of increased pain thresholds were found after both alcohol doses, surprisingly with more pronounced effects for the lower dose. While the high alcohol dose exerted small analgesic effects on pain intensity ratings (i.e. decrease), slightly increased ratings of pain intensity and pain unpleasantness after the low alcohol dose rather suggest pain enhancement. Alcohol did not affect intensity vs. unpleasantness ratings differentially. We found no evidence for sex differences in any of these effects. Conclusions Overall, acute alcohol effects on pain were subtle. Our findings suggest that while low alcohol doses already exert analgesic effects on pain threshold, stronger doses are required for pain reduction on supra-threshold pain levels. Furthermore, sex differences could not be detected within our experimental paradigm but should be further explored in future research. Implications Analgesic effects of sub-toxic alcohol doses – as normally occurring during social drinking – might be weak; however, susceptibility to pain relieving effects of alcohol might be a risk factor for the use of alcohol as self-medication in acute pain states.