Chronic alcohol consumption can be damaging to every part of your body. One possible outcome is alcoholic neuropathy, which occurs because of alcohol’s toxicity to nerve tissue.
So what does alcoholic neuropathy feel like?
What is Alcoholic Neuropathy?
Alcoholic neuropathy is a medical condition that occurs because of damage to the peripheral nerves by alcohol use. Peripheral nerves transmit signals between your body, spinal cord, and brain.
- Your peripheral nerves are responsible for managing many essential motor and sensory functions.
- Peripheral nerves help control your urinary and bowel elimination, walking, and sexual arousal.
- They also play a role in speech and the function of your arms and legs.
- Along with alcohol use, diabetes is a leading cause of neuropathy in America.
- When you experience neuropathy from damage to one or more of your nerves, it usually starts in your hands and feet, but other body parts can also be affected.
If you have peripheral neuropathy, it indicates a problem with the peripheral nervous system.
- The peripheral nervous system is a network of nerves outside the brain and spinal cord.
- The brain and spinal cord are the central nervous system, and these two systems work together.
- The central nervous system is like your body’s control system. Your peripheral nervous system includes the pathways that connect to your control system. Your nerves allow information signals to travel to and from your control system, brain, and spinal cord.
- If your nerve cells, also called neurons, are damaged or destroyed, it’s neuropathy. This destruction or damage disrupts how your neurons communicate with each other and your brain.
- Neuropathy can affect one nerve, nerve type, or a combination of nerves in a limited area. Neuropathy can also affect many peripheral nerves in your body.
It’s important to note that damage to sensory nerves is only one of many health problems that can impact chronic alcoholics.
Along with nerve pain and permanent nerve damage, alcoholic patients are at higher risk of mental health disorders, cancer, organ failure, problems with liver and kidney function, damage to the digestive tract, and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
The conditions associated with damage to the human body in chronic alcohol users often require intensive treatments, and many aren’t reversible.
What Causes Alcohol-Related Nerve Damage?
It can take years for someone to develop alcoholic neuropathy following heavy alcohol use. Some people experience a faster onset than others or a more rapid progression, but we don’t completely know why some people experience this nerve health condition, and others don’t.
Alcoholic neuropathy is thought to occur because of a combination of factors. Two big ones are nutritional deficiencies that can occur with alcohol abuse and toxins in the body.
When you drink large amounts of alcohol, it depletes your body of nutrients you need, like vitamin B12 and protein. Other related nutrient and vitamin deficiencies include niacin, thiamine deficiency, folate (folic acid), vitamin B1, vitamin B6, and vitamins A and E.
Along with vitamin and nutrient deficiencies, alcohol affects the function of the liver, stomach, and kidneys. The body can’t properly dispose of waste, so it builds up and hurts different parts of the body, including the nerves.
Nerves aren’t easily able to regenerate if they’re severely damaged from excessive drinking and its toxic effects.
Neuropathic Symptoms Related to Alcohol
So, what does alcoholic neuropathy feel like? Typically the signs start subtly. Someone might not even recognize these symptoms are related to alcohol use. These symptoms can include:
- Bruises or sores on the toes, fingers, or feet
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Decreased pain after an injury
- Less sensation of the fingers, toes, legs, arms, and hands
- Dizziness, especially when standing up with your eyes closed
- Loss of hand and feet coordination
- Loss of balance when walking
- Pain or tingling in the arms, legs, fingers, and toes
- Sexual dysfunction
- Problems walking in a straight line
- Weakness of the hands or feet
- Abnormal sensations
- Urinary incontinence and problems with other bodily functions
The effects of alcohol-related neuropathy can be divided into four general categories: decreased sensation, pain and hypersensitivity, muscle weakness, and damage to the autonomic nerves.
Diagnosing Neuropathy from Alcohol Abuse
It can be complex to diagnose this condition.
- If you talk to your health care provider, they might start with a complete neurological and physical exam to test sensation, coordination, reflexes, and muscle function.
- A care provider will also go over your complete medical history.
- Most people with neuropathy from alcohol use have reduced sensation and reflexes. In advanced neuropathy, weakness may also occur.
- There are tests called electromyography (EMG) and nerve conduction studies (NCV) that look at nerve function and electrical signals in more detail. Often characteristic patterns like decreased functionality in the hands and feet suggest alcoholic neuropathy.
- A nerve biopsy can rarely be suggested, and other tests include blood tests, urine tests, and imaging tests of the brain and spinal cord.
The diagnostic process can real out other reasons aside from alcoholic intake. For example, the diagnosis could be diabetic neuropathy. Other reasons some people experience nerve damage and pain include poor diets without chronic alcohol use, autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, and oxidative damage leading to inflammatory pain.
Is Alcoholic Neuropathy Permanent?
In some cases, damage to nerves from heavy alcohol use is permanent but some treatments might help the symptoms.
- Pain medications and antidepressants are two medicines that a doctor could prescribe to help with neuropathy. Anti-seizure medicines are also prescribed.
- Since the condition is associated with nutritional deficiency, vitamin supplementation of B12, pantothenic acid, folate, vitamin E, and thiamine may be recommended.
- Along with vitamin supplements, your treatment plan might include helping you follow a healthy diet and reducing the risk of poor nutrition.
- There are other supplements and alternative therapies like the use of alpha-lipoic acid that help some people with autonomic neuropathy or peripheral neuropathy.
No medicine can help with the loss of sensation, coordination or balance problems, or muscle weakness. With that being said, the symptoms aren’t always permanent.
People often notice their symptoms get better within a few months of discontinuing drinking alcohol.
A liver transplant may be needed in people with very severe alcohol use disorders. For those people, neuropathy symptoms sometimes improve following the liver transplant. In very advanced cases of neuropathy, there may not be an improvement even after the transplant.
For someone with a diagnosis of alcohol-related neuropathy, you may eventually need help with certain tasks. Suppose it goes untreated and continues to progress because of ongoing alcohol abuse.
In that case, you may need help walking with a cane, walker, or wheelchair due to muscle atrophy and other issues. You may have to learn how to perform household tasks safely, such as by wearing gloves to check the water temperature before you bathe because you can’t feel it.
You may also have to work with healthcare professionals, including going to physical therapy on an ongoing basis. This can greatly diminish your quality of life if you have nerve damage from excessive alcohol consumption or addictive patterns of alcohol intake.
How to Prevent Alcohol-Induced Neuropathy
The best thing you can do to prevent nerve damage and other harmful effects of neuropathic pain is to take preventative measures before your drinking gets out of hand. Alcohol addiction treatment options are available and can help you along the way.
Even if you already have some symptoms of neuropathy, it’s a progressive disorder, so the sooner you can stop drinking, the more likely you are to stop its progression or maybe even reverse some of the symptoms so that you don’t necessarily have permanent damage and long-term painful symptoms.
We understand it’s not easy to stop drinking, but we’re here and available to answer questions you might have about treatment. To learn more about alcohol addiction treatment in Orange County, CA call Covenant Hills Treatment at 844-268-8412.