In chronic drinkers, hyperalgesia, or increased sensitivity to pain, commonly contributes to relapse. Researchers have found that electroacupuncture treatment reduces hyperalgesia and thus, could be a viable therapy in treating alcohol dependence.
While alcohol use disorder (AUD) has been present in society for decades, affecting 5% of the world’s population, effective treatment options have yet to be found. A common symptom of alcohol withdrawal is hyperalgesia, or increased sensitivity to pain, and research shows that chronic pain states can alter alcohol use patterns. Thus, treating hyperalgesia in alcohol withdrawal is a target in ultimately treating AUD.
A proposed alternative therapy for treating the pain associated with alcohol withdrawal is acupuncture, specifically electroacupuncture (EA). Acupuncture has been used for years in alleviating pain from various disorders, and EA is a modified form of the treatment where electrical stimulation is included to improve its clinical effects. Studies have shown EA’s effectiveness in pain management, as well as in reduction of voluntary alcohol intake in rats through activation of receptors in the brain.
In a new study published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, Li et al. examined the effectiveness of EA in treating hyperalgesia during alcohol withdrawal. Rats were trained to drink from an alcohol and water mixture for 8 weeks, also with access to just water. During this time, pain threshold tests were conducted where a focussed beam of light was aimed at the rat’s paw. When the rat moved its paw away from the light, the beam was turned off and the time was recorded. After the 8 weeks, the rats were divided into 3 groups; one of which received EA treatment, one of which received EA treatment on a non-responsive part of the body (the tail) and one which received no EA treatment. Pain threshold tests were again administered following treatment.
The findings showed that hyperalgesia was present in rats suffering from alcohol withdrawal and that EA significantly reduced its effects. EA’s pain relieving effects were only seen in the effective EA treatment and not in the tail EA treatment, which showed similar results to receiving no treatment at all. It should be noted that the analgesic (pain relieving) effect requires a low frequency (2-Hz) stimulus due to the chemical release it facilitates as opposed to high frequency stimulation. The pain threshold tests were significantly improved in rats at 24, 48 and 72 hours and 7 days post alcohol withdrawal. The results of this study improve our understanding of EA therapy in treating hyperalgesia in those suffering from AUD and further research could make EA an accepted therapy for hyperalgesia in humans.
Written By: Wesley Tin, BMSc