Does Alcohol Withdrawal Cause Muscle Pain?

Robert Gerchalk

Robert is our health care professional reviewer of this website. He worked for many years in mental health and substance abuse facilities in Florida, as well as in home health (medical and psychiatric), and took care of people with medical and addictions problems at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He has a nursing and business/technology degrees from The Johns Hopkins University.

Think you have a drinking problem?

If you suspect you might have a drinking problem, don't wait to seek help. Call our hotline now for confidential advice, support, and the first step towards understanding your relationship with alcohol and beginning your journey to recovery.

Alcohol Withdrawal and Muscle Pain

Alcohol addiction causes physical and emotional changes in the body. Over time, the body gets used to a certain level of alcohol in the bloodstream. When you stop drinking, you may experience withdrawal symptoms, including aches and pains. Muscle pains due to alcohol withdrawal are known as alcohol myopathy.

How Alcohol Dependence Begins

A connection has been established between the length of time a person has been drinking combined with the volume of alcohol consumed and the severity of withdrawal symptoms. The damage caused by alcohol consumption builds up over time, and it takes increasing amounts of alcohol to get the same “buzzed” effect. 

Alcohol suppresses certain neuroreceptors in the brain that control the “fight or flight” system. This system increases your awareness, heart rate, and other body functions to prepare you to fight or flee from a dangerous situation. Unfortunately, the body tends to overreact and interpret common, daily stresses as if they were an emergency. Factors like job stress, illness, and family pressures can make the body respond as if it were a life-or-death situation. Many people turn to alcohol to calm them down and suppress their systems as a way of dealing with daily stress. This can lead to an alcohol addiction. 

After some time, the body begins to depend on alcohol to avoid this feeling of stress and anxiety. Without it, the nerves can no longer calm down on their own, and the individual becomes more reactive to stress over time. This is how alcohol addiction begins. As the body loses more of the ability to calm itself, the person must drink more to achieve the same effect. This is called alcohol dependence. 

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Once the body reaches the point where it cannot function without alcohol, the person is dependent or addicted. The craving for alcohol overrides almost anything else. Alcohol dependence causes many physical changes, and stopping suddenly can cause the person to go into withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms can range from mild to severe or even life-threatening. 

Severe withdrawal symptoms include: 

  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures
  • Delirium tremens (DTs) 

It might be noted that DTs go beyond simply shaking. They represent a serious condition. All of these symptoms indicate a medical emergency and must be treated accordingly. Other milder symptoms might include: 

  • Shaking or trembling of the hands 
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fast heart rate
  • Increased sweating
  • Headaches
  • Not feeling hungry
  • Feeling anxious
  • Feeling depressed
  • Feeling irritable
  • Restless fidgeting or uncontrolled movement
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Feeling tired
  • Muscle cramps or pain

Is It Muscle or Nerve Pain?

Muscle cramps or muscle pain is a common symptom among those trying to break the addiction cycle. Muscle cramps and pain can also happen before you begin to have withdrawal symptoms because alcohol has a toxic effect on many systems of the body. It also causes nutritional deficiencies that can lead to these problems. 

What many people report as muscle pain might be a form of nerve pain called neuropathy. Neuropathy can eventually lead to muscle pain, so it can be both. Muscle pain can also happen on its own without neuropathy. It can be difficult to tell just from the symptoms exhibited. 

When alcohol damages the nerves, it can cause weakness, numbness, twitching, pain, burning, and muscle cramps in the affected area. Eventually, this can degenerate into muscle loss, bone degeneration, changes in the skin, and changes in the nails. The first symptoms of neuropathy can appear over days or weeks, or they can show up suddenly. 

Alcoholic myopathy can first appear as similar symptoms to neuropathy. The only difference is that the alcohol has affected the muscle tissue itself instead of the surrounding nerves. Alcoholic myopathy causes pain and weakness in the skeletal muscles. You can experience it suddenly as a result of binge drinking, or it can happen over time. This condition is present in as many as one-third of all alcohol-dependent people

Muscle cramps are what many people refer to as muscle pain. This is the involuntary contraction of the muscle. It is usually painful and can involve one or a group of muscles. Nerve pain can be described as sharp or stabbing, and it can involve a burning or tingling sensation. Muscle pain is typically duller but steadier over time. Muscle pain can manifest as cramps or spasms. 

Withdrawal Muscle Pain Due to Alcoholic Myopathy or Neuropathy

Alcohol withdrawal places your body under stress. If you already have alcohol myopathy or neuropathy, then withdrawing from alcohol could make your condition worse. It is difficult to tell whether the pain you are experiencing just affects the muscles or if it is a sign of advancing neuropathy. If you have experienced this type of pain before you decided to stop alcohol consumption, then it is likely that you are experiencing this type of pain during withdrawal and might have undiagnosed neuropathy or myopathy. 

Alcoholic myopathy and neuropathy worsen over time, especially with continued alcohol use. If you are experiencing new pain of any type before or after you stop drinking, it is always best to see a physician. In many cases, medications and therapies can help these conditions. If you know you have these ailments, it is best to talk to a healthcare professional before you stop drinking and experience withdrawal symptoms.

Other Causes of Muscle Pain During Withdrawal

Existing muscle and nerve damage can surface as a withdrawal symptom. It might be that it was already there, and you never noticed it, or it can get suddenly worse with all the other stress your body is under. Muscle pain is not necessarily the result of an underlying condition and can arise suddenly without warning during withdrawal. 

Muscle pain that is not a consequence of an underlying condition can be produced by many causes. These include vitamin and mineral deficiencies, dehydration, low electrolytes, underactive thyroid, or certain medications. The pain can be mild or severe. It can appear in any part of the body. If you can pinpoint the cause of the muscle pain, you can often find relief by fixing the underlying condition. This is where having a team of medical professionals on your side can help. 

One of the reasons why you might experience muscle pain during withdrawal is that you had an underlying condition, but the alcohol was masking the pain. Without the alcohol, you can now feel the pain you have been hiding. In this case, you might want to consult a physician to get through the withdrawal period and work on resolving the underlying issue as a long-term strategy. 

Alcohol has several effects on the body that can cause muscle pain and cramping. It interrupts calcium absorption that is needed to help your muscles contract. Alcohol prohibits protein synthesis and can lead to muscle breakdown over time. It also increases insulin resistance and blocks the absorption of carbohydrates, which is necessary for muscle growth. All of these things can cause muscle cramps or pain before and during withdrawal. 

Alcohol also causes the body to lose water, resulting in dehydration. This causes weakness and muscle cramping. When you drink alcohol, your body sees the substance as toxic and will prioritize getting it out. This means that getting rid of other toxins, such as lactic acid, will take longer. This is another possible cause of muscle cramping during withdrawal. 

Coping With Muscle Pain During Withdrawal

If you are in a treatment center when you decide to detox from alcohol, you should tell your medical staff if you begin to experience aches and pains during the withdrawal process. They might prescribe ice packs, heat, muscle creams, or a low-dose painkiller to help bring some comfort. 

For those at home, you can rely on some of these same remedies, but you should not take over-the-counter pain medication without first consulting a physician. They might suggest something like ibuprofen or Tylenol for a few days to help you through the initial withdrawal. If you are on any other medications for pain, it is necessary to consult with your physician before taking anything else.

Seeking Long-term Solutions

Muscle pain during alcohol withdrawal has many possible causes. If you are in the care of a medical team, they can run tests to see if the muscle pain has an underlying cause that can be treated. Muscle pain during withdrawal can be excruciating, and there is no reason to go through it alone. 

Muscle pain can be a result of a temporary condition your body is in during withdrawal, or it can be the result of a chronic condition you did not know you had until now. Alcohol has some devastating effects on the body when you consume it long-term. It can contribute to arthritis, muscle atrophy, and the breakdown of muscle tissue. 

The solution to these problems begins with breaking your alcohol dependence and getting on the road to long-term recovery. Sometimes, these symptoms will resolve on their own once you stop drinking. Even if they do not, refraining from alcohol will make other medical solutions work more effectively. Getting through the symptoms of withdrawal is the first step, but it might take time for some of these other nerve and muscle-related issues to resolve. The importance of qualified medical support and your network of family and friends is important to the recovery process. 

Help Is Available

Withdrawal symptoms from alcohol dependency can range from mild to life-threatening. If you have been dependent on alcohol for some time, it is not a good idea to just quit cold turkey and try to tough it out. For one, you do not know how severe your symptoms will become, and the pain of withdrawal may make you drink again. If you have decided to beat your addiction, our alcoholism hotline, Alcohol Awareness, is there to help. You can reach us at (855) 955-0771

Our team is available 24/7 and will listen to your needs. We can provide you with education and resources in your local area. You and your loved ones should not try to walk this road alone. If you are ready to break the grip of alcohol addiction for good, then call us for free. We can help get you on the path to sobriety.