Pain and Relapse: Physical Pain Found to Be a Relapse Risk Factor After Alcohol Addiction Treatment

Physical Pain Found to Be a Relapse Risk Factor After Alcohol Addiction Treatment

A group of scientists in Poland recently published some interesting findings in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence. The basic highlights of their results are as follows: They found a strong correlation, or relationship, between physical pain and relapse for people who have been treated for alcohol dependence in the past, a decrease in the severity of physical pain after treatment has been shown to increase the odds of staying sober, and the scientists believe that managing pain from the beginning of treatment could be a good way to decrease the risk of relapse later. They were able to find almost 400 people who had been treated for substance use disorders and reported ongoing issues with physical pain, usually from an injury of some kind. This quote, taken from the abstract, or introduction, to the original published paper will make the goals of the scientists clear, 

“The aim of this study was to evaluate whether reductions in pain level during the follow-up period after treatment were associated with lower relapse risk.”

We know that patients seeking drug and alcohol addiction treatment are much more likely than the general population to suffer from both physical and emotional pain. There may be many reasons for this, but I will touch on a few of the main reasons here. Many people who suffer from dependence and addiction to opiates originally obtained their first opiate medications from a doctor, and a serious injury or health problem makes it much more likely that someone will eventually become dependent on opiates. Dependence is similar to addiction, but being dependent on an opiate simply describes the physical need for the drug in order to avoid going into withdrawal. You can find many other articles on this site where I discuss opiate addiction and withdrawal syndrome in more depth. Emotional pain is also much more prevalent in the reporting of people with substance use disorders, and this stems from those people being much more likely to have suffered abuse or neglect as a child, as one example. Another example for these myriad connections is the fact that many automobile accidents involve alcohol, so people who are addicted to alcohol are more likely than others to have been in a serious automobile accident. With just a few of the reasons laid out, we can see that people in drug and alcohol addiction treatment are, in fact, more likely to be in some kind of pain, and it is incredibly valuable to know that managing that pain during and after a program of addiction treatment can decrease the risk of patients relapsing in the future. Relapsing is when a person who has stopped using drugs and alcohol after seeking addiction treatment returns to using alcohol, drugs, or both. 

The scientists who did this important study were able to conclude that “Decreases in pain level following treatment for alcohol dependence are associated with, and may contribute to, a lower risk of alcohol relapse.” Even when they controlled for all other factors that are associated with relapse, such as a person having depression or experiencing less social support, people who had less physical pain and had better managed their ongoing pain issues were much less likely to have relapsed during the period that was tracked for this study. I would simply say that it is always important to treat both drug and alcohol addiction and the underlying causes of that addiction, and if physical pain was closely associated with a person’s reasons for using drugs and alcohol, this study shows how important it is to properly manage that physical pain. 

By Tim Cannon



“Reductions in physical pain predict lower risk of relapse following alcohol treatment.” Drug and Alcohol Dependence Volume 158, 1 January 2016, Pages 167-171. Retrieved from