Neural mechanisms of pain and alcohol dependence

Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 2013 Nov;112:34-41. doi: 10.1016/j.pbb.2013.09.008. Epub 2013 Oct 2.


An association between chronic pain conditions and alcohol dependence has been revealed in numerous studies with episodes of alcohol abuse antedating chronic pain in some people and alcohol dependence emerging after the onset of chronic pain in others. Alcohol dependence and chronic pain share common neural circuits giving rise to the possibility that chronic pain states could significantly affect alcohol use patterns and that alcohol dependence could influence pain sensitivity. The reward and emotional pathways that regulate drug/alcohol addiction also mediate chronic pain. For example, pain-evoked activation of brain learning and brain reward circuitry may modulate cortical processing of pain and central sensitization mediated by mesocorticolimbic circuitry. Imbalance and reorganization of amygdala-mPFC interactions may not only be important for persistent pain, but also for disorders characterized by the abnormal persistence of emotional-affective states such as drug and alcohol addiction. Further studies are necessary to understand how these neural circuits are regulated in comorbid conditions of alcoholism and chronic pain. In addition, long term alcohol use could induce pain symptoms and may exacerbate chronic pain arising from other sources. While prior studies have established a role of neuroendocrine stress axis mediators in alcohol abuse and neurotoxic effects, these studies have not explored the distinction between the individual impact of alcohol and stress hormones. Future studies should explore the mechanisms mediating the contribution of alcohol and stress axis hormones on pain, an important question in our understanding of the neurobiology of alcohol abuse and chronic pain.

Keywords: Alcohol; Chronic pain; Drug addiction; Emotion; Reward.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alcoholism*
  • Humans
  • Neuralgia / physiopathology*