We’ve all heard the devastating effects of alcohol dependence on the body and the mind. Cirrhosis of the liver, pancreatitis, mouth and throat cancers, hepatitis – these are just some of this disorder’s risks.
One of the lesser–known effects, however, is alcoholic neuropathy, a damaging of the nerve cells that can cause pain, burning sensations, numbness, and a variety of other problems as well. And these can be permanent.
And as with most diseases, spotting the signs early is absolutely key to mitigating its harmful effects. So, before you have another drink, you may want to learn a bit more about this disease first.
What is Alcoholic Neuropathy?
Neuropathy from alcohol abuse can be a debilitating disease. It’s characterized by a loss in nerve function, mostly in the extremities, and can cause damage to your body that ends up lasting for the rest of your life.
Alcoholism, even in so-called “high-functioning alcoholics”, is a major risk factor with this disease. Sufferers will often experience numbness, feelings of pins-and-needles, and possibly other sensations that can become extremely painful.
And in most cases, the only method of treating the disease is to stop drinking entirely. While simply “cutting back” can be slightly beneficial, most sufferers of neuropathy from alcohol dependence will only see results after getting really and truly sober.
Alcoholic Polyneuropathy, Neuropathy, & Mononeuropathy
Generally, alcoholic neuropathy is a bit of an umbrella term used to describe any deterioration of the body’s nerve cells due to high levels of alcohol abuse.
As such, you might be a bit confused if you hear the terms “alcoholic neuropathy” and “alcoholic polyneuropathy” used interchangeably. In the technical sense though, polyneuropathy is a subcategory of the more general neuropathy.
It means multiple groups of nerves are affected whereas mononeuropathy only refers to a single group. Mononeuropathy, according to the Center for Peripheral Neuropathy, is more commonly the result of damage by trauma, local compression, prolonged pressure, or inflammation.
That means that the condition can affect people in lots of different ways. Moreover, it can make other problems worse. As a result, it shows why it’s important to seek help for a drinking problem early. Failure to do so can result in life-long complications that don’t have a solution.
A Closer Look at Neuropathy from Alcoholism
While the science is still out on the exact mechanism behind alcoholic neuropathy, there seem to be a couple of factors at play here.
First off, the main reason behind the numbness, pain, and muscular dysfunction associated with this disorder is that the body’s nerves aren’t functioning as they’re supposed to. This is because the axons (the long, stringy part of a nerve) are less able to carry electrical impulses between nerve cells.
This is due to the direct breakdown of the structure of the axons as well as a deterioration in the myelin sheaths, which help transmit these electrical signals. Axons are essential for a nervous system to function properly.
The result is a nerve cell that’s sending electrical impulses that are slowed down, misdirected, or entirely incomplete. This results in the numerous complications that this article will discuss in greater detail later.
Researchers believe the inherent toxicity of alcohol alone is partly to blame for this deterioration but there may be other contributing factors as well. Nutritional deficiencies of thiamine or folic acid may make the problem even worse and inhibit the body’s natural ability to repair damaged cells. These deficiencies are common in alcoholics due to poor diet and inhibited gastrointestinal absorption.
As your nerves cells are directly damaged by the alcohol, then, your body can’t repair them fast enough because you don’t have the proper vitamins in your system. It’s a damaging combination that may have irreparable consequences.
This may seem like a person can prevent alcoholic neuropathy simply by eating right. After all, that’s where most people get their vitamins from. However, alcoholic impedes the processing and uptake of nutrients. That means eating right by itself isn’t a solution.
Symptoms of Neuropathy from Alcohol Abuse
Learning to spot the signs of alcoholic neuropathy is the first step in treating this painful and sometimes debilitating disorder. As such, we’ve included a list of the most common alcoholic neuropathy symptoms below as provided by MedlinePlus.
- Abnormal sensations like “pins and needles”
- Numbness of the extremities
- Painful sensations in the legs and arms
- Muscle problems that include spasms, aches, weakness, or cramps
- Heat intolerance
- Difficulty urinating, incontinence, feeling like you aren’t fully emptying your bladder
- Nausea or vomiting
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Difficulty talking or swallowing
These symptoms tend to worsen the longer and more severe the alcohol abuse is. As a result, if you notice these symptoms developing and you think it might be connected to your alcohol dependence and abuse, by far the best thing you can do is see a qualified medical professional for help.
They can get you on a treatment plan that’ll help stop the progression of these symptoms even further and may actually improve the condition (though the science is still out on that).
Diagnosing Alcoholic Neuropathy
There are several different ways that doctors can diagnose alcoholic neuropathy. Also, neuropathy can have several different causes. That’s why it’s vital that a person is honest with their doctor about their drinking. Hiding how much you drink from a doctor can mean that valuable time is wasted on unnecessary tests and procedures.
This situation doesn’t just cost time. It also costs money. These tests and procedures may or may not be covered by insurance. If a person is honest with their doctor, then they’ll get a better diagnosis and treatment results.
Doctors can use many different tests to determine if someone is suffering from neuropathy. These tests include:
Blood Chemistry Test
A blood chemistry test does not directly show if someone has alcoholic neuropathy. Instead, this test can point doctors and medical experts in the right direction. The test serves as an indicator of someone’s overall health. It looks at things like liver and kidney functions and blood sugar levels. These metrics provide valuable insight for medical professionals.
Complete Blood Count
A complete blood count test shows how well a person’s immune system is working. It also offers other helpful insights, like how much oxygen is getting to the cells in the body. A CBC test looks at all of the different types of blood cells to provide this information.
This test involves analyzing the esophagus and upper digestive track. Doctors look for things that can cause nausea and vomiting. The test is performed by using a camera. The camera is in a thin tube. The tube is gently passed into the throat to give doctors the information they need.
Nerve cells work by sending electrical signals. An electromyography involves putting needles into the skin and muscles. The needles are connected to a device. The device measures electrical activity. This can tell doctors if someone’s nerves are functioning properly. It can also show them if nerve cells aren’t working the way they should be.
Nerve Conduction Test
This test is similar to an electromyography. But, instead of putting needles into skin and muscles, it places electrodes on the skin. The electrodes give detailed information regarding the speed and strength of the nerve signals.
Upper Gastrointestinal and Small Bowel Series
This diagnostic test takes the form of a series of X-rays. Doctors take X-rays of the entire digestive tract. The X-rays show them where there might be issues. This information can help them determine what the problem is.
Treating Alcoholic Neuropathy
There’s a lot of discussion and debate regarding treatment for alcoholic neuropathy. The discussion focuses on the ability for treatment to reverse the effects of the condition. Most patients aren’t able to reverse the effects. Instead, they can only manage the symptoms.
While there are lots of different treatment methods, there’s one thing in common. Doctors recommend eliminating alcohol intake prior to treatment. Some doctors feel so strongly about this that they refuse to continue treatment for a person that doesn’t restrict alcohol consumption.
Treatment works best when the condition is recognized early. That’s another reason why it’s important, to be honest with a doctor. When someone isn’t honest about how much alcohol they consume, then they can delay getting the proper treatments. That makes the condition worse. It also makes it harder to prevent the worst symptoms.
There are a few different treatment options for people. Some of the options treat the symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy. Others attempt to reverse the damage the condition causes. It is important to note that doctors will recommend different combinations of treatment options for different people.
One common treatment method is vitamin supplements. These supplements can give a person’s body the resources that it needs to repair damage to nerves. Since alcohol prevents the body from absorbing certain nutrients, this can only work if someone stops drinking.
One of the most common issues for people with alcoholic neuropathy is issues with muscle control and balance. Physical therapy can help with this. It uses gentle exercises to help a person’s body practice moving. This can also aid in repairing nerve damage.
How Much Alcohol Causes Neuropathy?
Like many other types of diseases, neuropathy from alcohol abuse doesn’t progress in all individuals the exact same way. Some people may end up drinking excessively their entire lives without developing this disorder. Others can see symptoms within several years of heavy alcohol abuse.
As a result, there’s no exact amount of alcohol that brings on this disorder. However, individuals shouldn’t use this as an excuse to continue drinking. When a specific cause is unknown, people will use that as an excuse to continue addictive behavior.
However, most physicians agree that staying within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Dietary Guidelines for alcohol consumption (one drink a day for women and two for men) doesn’t carry nearly any risk for developing this disease.
Having said that, the general consensus is that alcoholic neuropathy develops in up to half of long-term heavy alcohol abusers. If you’ve been an alcoholic for 10 years or more, you’re at significant risk of developing this painful disorder.
How Long Does Alcoholic Neuropathy Last?
This is one of the most common questions for people who are affected by this disease and given the annoyance, pain, and eventual debilitation of neuropathy from alcohol dependence, it’s no wonder.
Unfortunately, the prognosis for alcoholic neuropathy isn’t good. Alcohol nerve damage repair is only possible up to a certain point and the truth of the matter is that by the time most people seek out the help of a qualified physician, they’ve already done permanent damage to their nerve cells.
So, is alcoholic neuropathy permanent? In most cases, yes.
One especially important phrase in that sentence, though, is “in most cases”. As you’ll see in some of the stories at the end of this article, some people are able to catch on to this disease quick enough to stop any further progression of neuropathy from alcohol abuse.
The takeaway here, again, is that finding the right physician and rehab center early can save you from a lot of trouble down the line.
Other Causes of Neuropathy
Alcohol is not the only cause of neuropathy. In fact, the condition can come from a number of different causes. It’s important to realize that, whatever the primary cause of neuropathy, drinking alcohol contributes to the condition and makes it worse.
Also, it is important that people do not use other conditions as an excuse to keep drinking. This is sometimes called fundamental attribution error.
Diabetes is actually the most common cause of neuropathy in Europe. Diabetes causes neuropathy because high levels of blood sugar cause nerve damage. Drinking is hard on people with diabetes. That means that it’s important to avoid alcohol if you have neuropathy and diabetes.
Another cause of neuropathy is poor diet. Many people with alcohol abuse problems also suffer from a poor diet. That happens because of budget reasons and preference reasons. A poor diet that lacks vitamin B12 or folate can result in peripheral neuropathy.
Neuropathy is also caused by exposure to toxic substances. These substances damage nerve cells in different ways. Insecticides and solvents are a particular issue. This means that people addicted to inhalants, like sniffing glue or paint thinner, are also at risk for neuropathy.
Proper nerve health depends on a balance of salts and chemicals in the blood. These substances are controlled by the kidneys. Therefore, kidney disease can be a source of neuropathy.
No matter what caused a particular person’s neuropathy, drinking makes things worse. Alcohol affects all of the conditions listed above. It prevents the body from effectively filtering out poisons. This can make other things more dangerous.
Alcohol also causes damage to the kidneys. That’s because the kidneys depend on having the right amount of water to function. Alcohol dries the body out. That prevents the kidneys from doing their job properly.
Alcohol also prevents the body from getting proper nutrition. It has this effect for several reasons. First, it damages cells in the stomach. This causes the stomach to produce more acid. That lowers the stomach’s ability to take in vitamins and nutrients. Also, breaking down alcohol requires nutrients. Excessive alcohol consumption drains these nutrient stores, causing deficiencies.
What is Recovery Like?
As mentioned above, recovery from alcoholic neuropathy is not assured. Some people experience complete relief from their symptoms in a number of weeks or years and others may have to cope with the effects for the rest of their lives.
The most notable common thread for nearly all sufferers is that the sooner you seek help for your neuropathy from alcohol dependence, the less the overall damage is likely to be. This makes the effects of alcohol withdrawal a small price to pay for relief.
Having said that, the first thing almost any doctor will tell you is that you need to stop drinking. Not cut back, not only have a little but drop it entirely. If your alcohol intake has gotten so bad that it’s actually physically damaging your nerve cells, then continuing to add any amount of alcohol is only going to make the problem worse.
And while it can be difficult to finally decide to get sober, doing so is absolutely crucial to mitigating the damage.
Beyond that, your physician will likely prescribe you a variety of different supplements, most likely thiamine and folic acid. These vitamins can help your body repair all the damage that it can.
Your physician may also decide to prescribe pain relievers to help deal with alcoholic neuropathy’s effects. This, however, is dependent on your risk of abusing the pills as many opioids can be highly addictive.
Alcohol Dependence Neuropathy Stories
Included below are just a few stories collected from alcoholic neuropathy forums and other alcoholism resources. These excerpts help give a clearer picture of just what this disease entails, as well as how recovery is possible given the right steps are taken.
This first story is about T, a touring musician whose heavy drinking quickly caught up with him.
About a year ago, T noticed that it became difficult for him to play guitar. He didn’t think much of it and continued on with his “party” lifestyle. Over the following six months, after more and more drinking and drugs, he lost the ability to play guitar completely. Not only could his fingers not push down on the fretboard… he could not even hold a pick… he could not pick up a cup without using his forearms, couldn’t tie his shoes… he fell all the time, he couldn’t walk more than a block without becoming exhausted…
He now (FINALLY) admits to his addiction and has been sober from cocaine and alcohol [for weeks]… we have already started to see some drastic improvements in his first weeks of his sobriety… just 2 weeks ago, T had to use the electric wheelchair in the grocery store. Today, his limp has visibly improved… [recently] we walked around downtown… upwards of 2 or 3 miles… I never thought he would start to improve so quickly.
~ Sones from NeuroTalk
This next story is a closer look at how alcoholic neuropathy feels which comes from a member from an online alcoholism-related forum.
I had it in my hands and arms first. It worried me because it was tingly and numb all the time and I work with my hands so I went to my doctor about it right away. It took til I had it in my right foot before they linked it to the alcohol… In my foot I had a weird feeling inside it and a couple of times I lost all feeling from the knee down for like half an hour or so. That was weird. Then I lost some movement in my foot. It came and went but I was walking funny all the time.
Anyway, when I eventually quit the numbness and tingling in my hands went pretty quickly, weeks even. That was such a relief. The leg took longer to get better but it is now.
~ hypochondriac from SoberRecovery
As you can see, recovery is possible (with the help of the right kind of treatment) but only if you seek it out early on in the process.
Alcoholic Neuropathy: One More Risk of Alcoholism
While many of the major diseases associated with alcoholism can be incredibly dangerous, it’s worth remembering that they aren’t the only effects of long-term alcohol consumption.
There are many ways that alcohol can damage a person’s mind and body. Also, many of these ways interact with each other. That means drinking too much can potentially cause a series of complex, interconnected health issues.
The best way to prevent the worst effects of alcohol is by stopping. The sooner a person stops, the better the odds they’ll avoid the worst impacts of drinking.
This is especially true for Alcoholic Neuropathy. By spotting the signs of this lesser-known disease early on, and by making the choice to kick the habit for good, you can avoid a lifetime of problems down the line.