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Alcohol and Health

Neck and Shoulder Pain While Drinking Alcohol

May 11, 2024
17 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
May 11, 2024
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
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Reframe Content Team
May 11, 2024
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How Alcohol Causes Neck and Shoulder Pain

  • Alcohol could be a cause of neck and shoulder pain, due to its detrimental effects on the musculoskeletal system, both short term and long term. 
  • Treat and prevent alcohol-related neck pain by quitting or cutting back on booze, stretching, staying hydrated, and managing stress. 
  • Reduce pain and lower your risk for long-term muscle disease by quitting or cutting back on alcohol. Reframe’s neuroscience-backed program can help by supporting all areas of your well-being!

You just attended the wedding of the year. You laughed, you cried, you sipped champagne. Now you’re back home in your pajamas ready to put your achy feet up and call it a night. That’s when you start to notice how sore your neck and shoulders are. You replay the events of the evening to pinpoint the source. You didn’t do any crazy dance moves. You didn’t have to crane your neck to see. Surely it couldn’t be the champagne — or could it? 

While alcohol’s cognitive side effects are well-known and documented, some people experience more obscure effects, such as neck and shoulder pain. How could alcohol cause that? Should we be worried? We’ll explore all that and more, so put some ice or a heating pad on that shoulder while you read.

Causes of Neck and Shoulder Pain

A man with neck pain

Before we “blame it on the alcohol,” let’s take a look at some general causes of neck and shoulder pain. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Did you do anything out of the ordinary? Sometimes we don’t feel a strain until much later in the day. Did you help a neighbor move a couch? Did you do extra yard work?
  • Did you sleep funny? The older we get, the less our body tolerates falling asleep on the couch or with our head tilted.
  • Could it be a pinched nerve? These are typically accompanied by some numbness or tingling. 
  • Do you have any previous injuries? Some people, athletes especially, can feel recurring pain at the site of a previous injury.
  • Is this the first time you’ve experienced this? The answer to the question can help you narrow down or rule out possible causes. 

If you can’t link your neck and shoulder pain to any of these sources, it might be time to take a closer look at alcohol as the prime suspect.

The Musculoskeletal System on Alcohol

To understand how alcohol could cause neck and shoulder pain, we have to understand its effects on our musculoskeletal system (MSK) in general.

We’re all familiar with the movie scenes when a mob of rowdy high school kids barge into a house party and leave every room in a state of disaster. Well, that’s kind of what alcohol does to our body. When alcohol enters our bloodstream, it rapidly disrupts nearly every organ in our body, including the oft-overlooked musculoskeletal system. Let’s take a look at some of the short- and long-term effects.

Short-Term Effects

When we talk about short-term effects, we’re referring to the effects of a single night of drinking. Here’s what could be causing shoulder or neck pain immediately after drinking alcohol:

  • Increased risk of injury. It’s no secret that inebriation can impair judgment and coordination, which can often lead to accidents and injury. 

  • Dehydration. As a diuretic, alcohol is known to cause dehydration, which can lead to muscle pain and weakness. This usually goes away with rest and rehydration.

  • Rhabdomyolysis. In rare instances, a night of heavy drinking may trigger a condition called rhabdomyolysis, which could cause severe muscle pain and damage.

Furthermore, some research indicates that acute alcohol use decreases muscle protein synthesis, which can impair muscle repair and affect musculoskeletal function. 

Long-Term Effects

Most long-term effects of alcohol on the musculoskeletal system are a result of long-term alcohol misuse. The onset of these conditions depends on how much, how often, and how long we drink. For example, someone who drinks heavily every day might experience these sooner than someone who only drinks heavily on the weekends. Either way, the prospects aren’t great: 

  • Muscle atrophy. Chronic alcohol consumption can cause muscle weakness and atrophy over time. 
  • Decreased bone density. Chronic alcohol use can also decrease bone density, leading to osteoporosis.
  • Inflammation. Several studies have determined that chronic alcohol use can lead to persistent inflammation throughout your body
  • Alcoholic myopathy. This condition, marked by significant loss of muscle function, is common among those with alcohol use disorder (AUD). It impairs physical function and diminishes our quality of life. The good news is that it’s reversible if we commit to abstaining from alcohol.

It’s evident that alcohol can dramatically impact our bones and muscles, but is that the cause of your neck pain?

The Musculoskeletal System on Alcohol

Does Alcohol Cause Neck and Shoulder Pain?

While there is quite a bit of research about alcohol’s effects on our muscles and bones, there’s not a lot about neck and shoulder pain specifically. Given what we know about alcohol and the musculoskeletal system, however, it’s plausible that drinking alcohol could result in neck pain. To pinpoint the cause, we need to pinpoint when the symptoms begin.

While Drinking Alcohol

If the neck and shoulder pain starts while we’re drinking, and there’s no obvious source of strain or injury, we’re likely dehydrated. This is a sign to set the champagne glass aside and start drinking water instead. Water with added electrolytes (Propel, Core, etc.) help boost hydration, but plain water also works fine.

After Drinking Alcohol

If the pain starts a while after imbibing, there are a few other possible causes: 

  • Sleeping position. Remember how sleeping in an awkward position can cause pain? Well, drinking makes us more likely to fall asleep in unusual places or positions. 

  • Alcoholic myopathy. Both acute and chronic drinking can cause alcoholic myopathy, a condition that affects muscle mass and function. Alcoholic myopathy presents as muscle pain, weakness, tenderness, swelling, cramping, or tightness, all of which could be contributing to neck and shoulder pain. Dark urine is also a telltale sign of alcoholic myopathy. 

If you have any of these symptoms, consult with your doctor. Untreated alcoholic myopathy can put you at greater risk for heart attack and stroke.

In rare (emphasis on rare) cases, neck pain while drinking alcohol might be a sign of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (HL). The most common symptom of HL is an enlarged lymph node, often found in the neck. These usually don’t hurt, but some patients report pain after drinking alcohol. Again, these cases are extremely rare, but if you notice anything unusual about your body or are concerned about your muscle pain, the best answer is always to consult with your physician.

How To Treat Neck and Shoulder Pain After Drinking Alcohol

Regardless of the cause, neck and shoulder pain are fairly easy to treat at home: 

  • Stop drinking. If you discover you have alcoholic myopathy, the only way to reverse it is to quit drinking. People who do usually make a full recovery within a year. If that’s not the cause of the pain, quitting or cutting back on alcohol can save you pain down the road regardless.
  • Rehydrate. Whether or not dehydration is causing your pain, it’s always good to rehydrate after drinking. If it solves your neck problem, great! If not, the rest of your body will still be grateful. 

  • Stretch or self-massage. Simple neck rolls and tilts can go a long way to relax sore muscles, and they’re easy to do wherever you are. Gently rubbing the affected muscles with your hands or a massager can also help.

  • Use heat or ice packs. Heat packs can relax tight muscles. Ice packs can reduce inflammation. Some people alternate the two for maximum effect. One way or another, heat and ice packs help bring some much-needed comfort and relief. 

  • Reduce inflammation. If it’s safe for you to do so, some OTC medications like ibuprofen help reduce inflammation. Please be aware of its interactions with alcohol and other medications. You can always ask your doctor if you’re unsure. 

This may go without saying, but alcohol should not be used to treat the pain, especially if you suspect alcohol could have caused it in the first place. 

When To Seek Medical Treatment

If home treatments don’t work, and pain persists, it may be time to call a doctor. If AUD is involved, a treatment program may be in order. Otherwise, treatment may include physical therapy and strength training. If your heart is in danger, your doctor may prescribe medications like beta-blockers. If the pain is caused by something else altogether, they should be able to determine that as well. 

How To Prevent Neck and Shoulder Pain

Once we resolve this painful episode, let’s make an effort to prevent future ones. There are several ways to keep neck and shoulder pain at bay:

  • Track triggers. Anytime you experience neck or shoulder pain, think about what activities might have caused it, and write them down. You may notice a pattern that can help you and your doctor pinpoint a cause and develop a treatment plan. 
  • Stretch regularly. Muscle tension can build up throughout our daily activities and tasks. Make some time during your daily routine to move and stretch your neck and shoulders. You can even do it while you finish reading this.
  • Manage stress. Stress can be a pain in the neck, both literally and figuratively. Add some deep breathing or meditation to your stretching routine to help manage your stress.
  • Avoid alcohol. If you suspect alcohol is contributing to your pain, go without it for a week or two and see if it helps. You might discover other benefits along the way! If going without alcohol for a week seems impossible, Reframe can help get you started and motivate you along the way.

  • Maintain good posture. Poor posture can cause a lot of tension in our neck and shoulders. As you go through your daily activities, pay attention to your posture. Try to keep your shoulders back and your neck upright to reduce strain on the surrounding muscles. 

Following these tips will not only help prevent neck pain, but will improve your general well-being.

No Pain, All Gain

There are many different causes for neck and shoulder pain, but alcohol could be a contributing factor because it impacts the musculoskeletal system and could cause localized pain. If you suspect alcohol is causing neck and shoulder pain, the best thing to do is to stop drinking it. Not only could that help relieve your pain, yes, but more importantly, it can help you gain a better quality of life now and avoid long-term musculoskeletal conditions in the future.

Summary FAQs

1. Why do my shoulders ache when I drink alcohol? 

There are several reasons your shoulders might ache after drinking alcohol. It could be related to dehydration, reckless behavior, irregular sleeping positions, or alcoholic myopathy. 

2. Can alcohol cause my neck and shoulders to ache?

Research is limited, but there are some indications that alcohol could cause neck and shoulder pain due to its effects on the musculoskeletal system. 

3. How can I treat neck and shoulder pain after drinking alcohol?

Simple home remedies like drinking electrolyte water, stretching, and cold/hot therapy help relieve sore muscles. If pain persists or worsens, seek medical intervention. 

4. How can I prevent neck and shoulder pain after drinking alcohol?

Take care of your musculoskeletal system and prevent pain by staying hydrated, stretching, managing stress, and avoiding alcohol.

Reduce Alcohol-Related Pain and Improve Your Health With Reframe!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

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Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. 

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today! 

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