The Aftereffects of Alcoholism: Alcoholic Neuropathy
Alcohol can be toxic to nerve tissue. People who drink too much may start to feel pain and tingling in their limbs. This is known as alcoholic ...

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What is Alcoholic Neuropathy?

Alcohol can be toxic to nerve tissue. People who drink too much may start to feel pain and tingling in their limbs. This is known as alcoholic neuropathy. In people with alcoholic neuropathy, the peripheral nerves have been damaged by too much alcohol use. The peripheral nerves transmit signals between the body, the spinal cord, and the brain.

Thiamine, folate, niacin, vitamins B6 and B12, and vitamin E are all needed for proper nerve function. Drinking too much can alter levels of these nutrients and affect the spread of alcoholic neuropathy. Fortunately, abstaining from alcohol can help restore your nutritional health. This may improve your symptoms and help prevent further nerve damage. However, some alcohol-induced nerve damage is permanent.

Causes of Alcoholic Neuropathy

Your peripheral nerves help your body manage important sensory and motor functions including:

  • bowel and urinary elimination
  • walking
  • sexual arousal
  • arm and leg movement
  • speech

Alcoholic neuropathy is the result of damage to these nerves. The damage may be the direct result of long periods where you drank too much alcohol. Nutritional problems linked to alcohol use can also cause nerve damage.

Symptoms of Alcoholic Neuropathy

Alcoholic neuropathy can affect both movement and sensation. Symptoms range from slight discomfort to major disability. Although the condition is not life threatening, it can decrease your quality of life. Some areas of the body affected by alcoholic neuropathy include:

Arms and Legs

  • numbness
  • tingling and burning
  • prickly sensations
  • muscle spasms and cramps
  • muscle weakness and atrophy
  • loss of muscle functioning
  • movement disorders

Urinary and Bowel

  • incontinence
  • constipation
  • diarrhea
  • problems starting urination
  • feeling that the bladder hasn’t been emptied fully

Other

  • sexual dysfunction
  • impotence
  • impaired speech
  • difficulty swallowing
  • heat intolerance, particularly following exercise
  • vomiting and nausea
  • dizziness or lightheadedness

If you have neuropathy symptoms, call your doctor. Early diagnosis and treatment make it more likely that you will be able to recover.

Diagnosing Alcoholic Neuropathy

Your doctor will need to examine you to diagnose this condition. It is important to share any history of alcohol use to get an accurate diagnosis. However, your doctor will still need to rule out other potential causes for your symptoms.

Tests which may identify other potential causes of neuropathy include:

  • nerve biopsy
  • nerve conduction tests
  • upper GI and small bowel series
  • neurological examination
  • electromyography
  • esophagogastroduodenoscopy
  • kidney, thyroid, and liver function tests

Blood tests can also look for vitamin deficiencies that are linked to both nerve health and alcohol use. Nutrients your doctor might test for include:

  • niacin
  • thiamine
  • folate
  • vitamins B6 and B12
  • biotin and pantothenic acid
  • vitamins E and A

Treatment for Alcoholic Neuropathy

The most important thing you can do to treat this condition is to stop drinking. Therefore, treatment may first focus on problems with alcohol use. For some people, this may require inpatient rehab. Others may be able to stop drinking with outpatient therapy or social support.

Once alcohol use has been addressed, doctors can focus on the neuropathy itself. Symptom management is important. However, nerve damage can also make it difficult for a person to carry out the functions of daily life. It may even make injuries more likely.

Every patient’s needs are different. Treatment for neuropathy may involve one, or many, of the following types of care.

Vitamin supplements can improve nerve health. Folate, thiamine, niacin, and vitamins B6, B12, and E are often recommended.

Prescription medications can be used for pain relief. Tricyclic antidepressants and anticonvulsant medication may both be used to reduce discomfort.

Over the counter pain relievers may also be useful for some patients.

Urination problems can sometimes be treated with medication. Other patients will need catheterization or urine expression. Urine expression is a way of manually moving urine from the bladder.

Physical therapy may help with muscle atrophy.

Orthopedic appliances can be used to stabilize extremities.

Safety gear, such as stabilizing footwear, can be used to prevent injuries. Some people may also need to inspect their feet and hands regularly for damage.

Special stockings can be used to prevent dizziness. Consuming extra salt and elevating the head while sleeping may also be useful.

Prognosis of Alcoholic Neuropathy

Nerve damage from this condition is usually permanent. If you keep drinking, your symptoms will probably get worse. This could lead to disability, chronic pain, and damage to your arms and legs. However, if caught early enough, you can minimize the damage from alcoholic neuropathy. Avoiding alcohol and improving your diet can sometimes lead to a moderate to full recovery.

Preventing Alcoholic Neuropathy

Alcoholic neuropathy is preventable. You just have to follow a few recommendations:

  • Don’t drink alcohol to excess. Alcohol can cause nerve damage.
  • Do not drink at all if you have any signs of neuropathy.
  • If you are having trouble avoiding alcohol, seek help.
  • Eat a healthy and balanced diet. Make certain to get enough of the E and the B vitamins.
  • Take vitamin supplements if you have vitamin deficiencies. However, it is important to discuss all supplement use with your doctor. Some supplements may interact with alcohol or medications.
Written by: Suzanne Allen and Elizabeth Boskey, PhD
Edited by:
Medically Reviewed by: George Krucik, MD
Published: Jul 16, 2012
Published By: Healthline Networks, Inc.
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