Alcoholic Neuropathy: What is It and Who is At Risk?

Alcoholic neuropathy is a relatively new discovery1, describing the damage alcohol can wreak on our nerves.

It’s one of the symptoms of alcoholism, and it’s very physically felt, typically manifesting as pain or tingling in our limbs—at least, at first. The problem can develop into greater issues with movement and other muscle functions, and while it’s not life-threatening, it can certainly lead to a decrease in our quality of life.

The issue stems from the damage excessive drinking can take on our peripheral nerves—those that connect our spinal cord to our muscles, limbs, and sensory organs, such as our:

  • Eyes
  • Ears
  • Nose
  • Tongue
  • Skin

These nerves are responsible for transmitting information between our brains and our bodies about our physical experiences in this world.

For example, you might run your hand along a smooth surface, but your brain can’t recognize that sensation—or allow you to actually “feel” it—without the information it receives from your peripheral nerves.

The experience of tingling, numbness, or pain caused by alcoholic neuropathy, then, is actually a disruption in this biological conversation.

As a side effect of alcoholism, alcoholic neuropathy primarily impacts those with alcohol use disorder (AUD)—the official classification of alcoholism—although any prolonged period of heavy drinking could trigger some of the effects.

If you are ready to start on the road to recovery, call 800-839-1686Who Answers? today to speak to a treatment specialist.

What Causes Alcoholic Neuropathy?

Scientists are still learning more about the exact relationship between alcohol and alcoholic neuropathy, though there are several major explanations for how the damage gets caused.1

Alcohol is, indeed, a mild toxin, thanks in no small part to its corrosive ethanol base. The same chemical trick that allows ethanol to kill germs (by absorbing their fatty outer encasings, leaving their insides to dissolve from exposure) is at play when the compound is introduced into our bodies.2

How our bodies break down alcohol, too, is another issue. Though the enzymes in our livers eventually convert ethanol into less harmful compounds (and, eventually, water and carbon dioxide), the process is multi-stepped.

First, alcohol is broken down into something called acetaldehyde—which is still very toxic—and a build-up of this substance or too much ethanol itself can lead to physical bodily damage.3

But alcoholic neuropathy is also, in some sense, a nutritional disease. Alcohol can both alter the levels2 of nutrients in our bloodstream and work to impede their absorption, processing, or transportation through our bodies.4

This means that essential nutrients such as vitamins E, B6, and B12, as well as thiamine, niacin, and folate, have more trouble doing their jobs when there’s too much alcohol in our blood. And deficiencies in those vital compounds can also contribute to issues with or outright damage to our nerves.2

What Are The Symptoms?

So what does alcoholic neuropathy actually look and feel like?

Though it targets the nerves, the malady can be felt throughout the body, mainly manifesting in several major areas in a number of ways, including in:

  • The limbs
  • The bowls or urinary tract
  • Other areas of the body

In the Limbs

You may experience alcoholic neuropathy as:4

  • Tingling or pricking sensations (“pins and needles”)
  • Numbness
  • Cramps
  • Muscle spasms
  • Muscle weakness
  • Loss of sensation
  • Loss of movement
  • Muscle atrophy

In the Bowls/Urinary Tract

Side effects of alcoholic neuropathy include:2

  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Incontinence
  • A consistent urge to urinate
  • Problems starting urination

In Other Areas

Other symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy may include:2

  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Abdominal bloating
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Slurred or impaired speech
  • Temperature sensitivity, especially heat intolerance
  • Impotence or other sexual dysfunction
  • Infertility, in men, in extreme cases

How Alcoholic Neuropathy Is Diagnosed

If you’re experiencing side effects of alcoholism, you should speak to your doctor. It’s important to be honest with them about how much you’re actually drinking, as this will likely inform any decisions on potential future testing or treatment.

If you’re particularly concerned with alcoholic neuropathy, the issue can be detected in a number of ways, including through:4

  • Blood chemistry tests, which measure the chemical compounds in the blood
  • Complete blood count (CBC) tests, which measure the physical entities in the blood
  • Electromyography, which measures electrical activity in the muscles
  • Nerve biopsies, which allow doctors to analyze signs of nerve damage
  • Nerve conduction tests, which measure nerve signal speed and strength
  • Neurological examinations, which can help measure reflexes, muscle strength, and coordination
  • Gastrointestinal tests, which measure the function of the GI tract

If your symptoms of alcoholism are extreme or persistent, a doctor may order one or several of these tests, to help determine if you have alcoholic neuropathy.

Treatment for Alcoholic Neuropathy

Unfortunately, nerve damage sustained from alcoholic neuropathy tends to be permeant.2 (Nerve damage, in general, is a difficult condition to bounce back from.) Though, depending on the severity and length of alcohol abuse, partial or full recoveries are possible.

Most treatments for the issue, then, center around minimizing any future harm to the nerves.

Quitting drinking is the most immediately effective way to combat alcoholic neuropathy—along with avoiding many other alcohol-related illnesses. Many doctors will recommend this as a first step and, in fact, hold off on further or more invasive treatment until this is at least attempted.

Still, further options for help are available, including:

  • Vitamin supplements, especially for vitamins E, B6, and B12
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers
  • Higher-strength prescription pain relievers
  • Physical therapy
  • Orthopedic exercises or aids, such as braces, to help facilitate muscle movement
  • Medication for urinary issues
  • Medication for incompetence or impotence issues

Again, quitting drinking will be the most effective and least invasive way to combat the physical symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy or any number of other health concerns.

If you’d like to pursue a life without alcohol but want or need help getting started, you find your local Alcoholics Anonymous chapter or find the closest AA meeting to you.

If you’d like more information on finding other rehab options, speak to a treatment specialist by calling 800-839-1686Who Answers?.

References

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