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Alcoholic Neuropathy: Long Term Effects of Alcoholism

Reviewer Dr. Juan Harris MBA, MS, MCAP, CMHP, SAP, CIP, ICADC
Clinically Reviewed By Dan Schimmel, LCSW, CAP
Updated On

NeuropathyMany people are unaware of just how damaging the effects of alcohol can be. One major problem faced by many heavy alcohol drinkers is Alcoholic Neuropathy, as they begin to feel pain and tingling in their limbs. This is because  the peripheral nerves that transmit signals between the body, the spinal cord, and the brain have been damaged by too much alcohol use.

Drinking too much can alter levels of necessary nutrients such as thiamine, folate, niacin, vitamins B6 and B12, and vitamin E, all of which are needed for proper nerve function, spreading alcoholic neuropathy. To regulate these nutrients, restoring them to proper levels can be done by abstaining from alcohol. You will see an improvement in your symptoms of Alcoholic Neuropathy and prevent any further nerve damage. Unfortunately, some nerve damage may be permanent.

What Causes Alcoholic Neuropathy?

The peripheral nerves in your body help to manage important sensory and motor functions such as: bowel and urinary elimination; walking; sexual arousal; arm and leg movement; and speech. Heavy, chronic alcohol use often results in damage to these nerves, causing Alcoholic Neuropathy. Additionally, nutritional problems can also cause nerve damage, or further damage caused by alcohol use.

The Devastating Symptoms of Alcoholic Neuropathy

People suffering from Alcoholic Neuropathy often are affected in their movement and sensation. The symptoms they face can range from mildly uncomfortable to unbearable pain. Many report a decrease in quality of life, even though this condition is not deemed to be life threatening.

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 Bowls
    • incontinence
    • constipation
    • diarrhea
    • problems starting urination
    • feeling that the bladder hasn’t been emptied fully
  • Other Affects
    • sexual dysfunction
    • impotence
    • impaired speech
    • difficulty swallowing
    • heat intolerance, particularly following exercise
    • vomiting and nausea
    • dizziness or lightheaded

If you are showing any signs or symptoms of Alcoholic Neuropathy call your Doctor immediately. It is key to treat this condition immediately to prevent any further damage.

Being Diagnosed with Alcoholic Neuropathy

If you are concerned you are experiencing symptoms of Alcoholic Neuropathy you should contact your Doctor, who will then examine you and diagnose you if you in fact do. It is important to share you history with alcohol, this will help to ensure you are diagnosed properly, ruling out other potential causes for your symptoms.

Tests  Used To Identify Other Potential Causes of Neuropathy
  • nerve biopsy
  • nerve conduction tests
  • upper GI and small bowel series
  • neurological examination
  • electromyography
  • esophagogastroduodenoscopy
  • kidney, thyroid, and liver function tests

Blood Tests To Identify Vitamin Deficiencies

These vital nutrients are commonly linked to neuropathy in chronic alcohol users:

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

Treating Alcoholic Neuropathy

The first thing you must do if you are experiencing symptoms of Alcoholic Neuropathy is to STOP DRINKING. This often requires a stay in an inpatient or outpatient treatment facility  for the first phase of treatment, getting the patient sober.

As soon as the alcohol problem has been addressed the Doctor will then begin to focus on the Neuropathy. They will begin to offer symptom management options, helping the patient to find relief to be able to carry out normal daily functions and reduce risk of injuries.

Each patient is treated for their individual needs, often resulting in treatment using one or more 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 may be used for pain relief. Commonly Doctors will prescribed tricyclic antidepressants and anticonvulsant medications to reduce discomfort.
  • Other over the counter pain relievers can alcohol help patients find relief from symptoms.
  • Urination problems may also be treated with medication, however some patents may require catheterization or urine expression to manually remove urine from the bladder.
  • Physical therapy can help patients with muscle atrophy.
  • Orthopedic appliances are often used to stabilize extremities.
  • Safety gear (stabilizing footwear) is often used to prevent injuries. Patients may need to inspect their feet and hands regularly for damage.
  • Special stockings, consuming extra salt and elevating the head while sleeping can help  to prevent dizziness in some patients.

What is The Prognosis of Those Suffering from Alcoholic Neuropathy?

Unfortunately, nerve damage from Alcoholic Neuropathy is usually permanent and if you keep drinking the symptoms will only get worse. Many people diagnosed with Alcoholic Neuropathy face disability, chronic pain, and damage to their arms and legs.

However, when Alcoholic Neuropathy is caught early on symptoms can be reduced and further damage prevented. By quitting alcohol and beginning a more nutritional diet can often lead to a moderate, even full, recovery.

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