Of the many detrimental health effects of alcohol consumption, one of the most common and permanent effects is alcohol-induced neuropathy. Also known as peripheral neuropathy, this disorder arises due to excessive alcohol consumption causing nerve damage to the peripheral nerves in the human body. Peripheral nerves are responsible for transmitting signals between the body, spinal cord, and brain. Several vitamins, Thiamine, folate, niacin, and vitamins B6, B12, and E are all needed for peripheral nerves to function properly. Excessive alcohol consumption over a prolonged period depletes the body of vital nutrients and disrupts the way nerves acquire these nutrients.
The resulting damage of alcohol induced neuropathy can severely limit the function and capabilities of the peripheral nerves, and in some cases lead to permanent loss of function. It is estimated that somewhere around 65% of people in the United States who have been diagnosed with alcohol use disorder also have alcoholic neuropathy.
What are the Effects of Alcoholic Neuropathy
The effects of alcoholic neuropathy fall into three main categories of symptoms: decreased sensation, pain and hypersensitivity, and muscle weakness. The prolonged damage to the nerves typically manifests itself in the peripheral extremities, in other words, the hands and feet, though effects may extend up the limbs.
- Decreased sensation in the hands, feet, and limbs
- Pain & tingling in the hands, feet, and limbs
- Muscle weakness in the hands, feet, and limbs
- Lack of coordination in the extremities
- Difficulty walking and balancing
- Untreated bruises, cuts, or sores in the hands, feet, and limbs
- Trouble walking a straight line
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Urinary incontinence
- Sexual dysfunction
- Limb cramps
- Muscle atrophy
- Muscle spasms
- Difficulty swallowing
The first way that alcoholic neuropathy manifests itself is typically in dulled sensation and feeling in the hands and feet. It may not sound like the worst symptom, but the effects can severely impact your balance and ability to avoid bumping into things. With diminished abilities to feel your extremities, you will have trouble walking and grasping things. Additionally, you may injure your hands or feet and not notice until the wound has become infected. With diminished sensations, you can struggle to write, walk, type, or text, making daily tasks that much harder to accomplish.
Alcoholic neuropathy may also progress to painful and hypersensitive feelings in the hands, feet, and limbs. Light touches may hurt, or you may experience a constant feeling of pins and needles. This kind of pain is difficult to bear, but for those who have drunk past a certain point of excessiveness, it can be a chronic condition. As it progresses, pain can vary in intensity. Severe alcoholic neuropathy will also result in muscle weakness. Our muscles need to receive messages from nerves to function properly, so when alcoholic neuropathy damages these nerves the muscles may not respond properly to stimulation. With muscle weakness comes a whole host of additional problems such as increased risk of injury, loss of bladder and bowel control, and sexual dysfunction.
How to Treat Alcoholic Neuropathy
Unfortunately, there is no way to rebuild the nerves that have been damaged by excessive alcohol consumption. The only cures for this disorder involve effectively managing the pain it causes. There are several ways this can be accomplished.
- Pain Medications: Prescription painkillers can help relieve some of these symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy. Opioid painkillers and barbiturates can help diminish the pain, but doctors do not recommend that patients with a history of alcoholism take any prescription pain reliever.
- Anti-Seizure Medication: These types of medications are considered safer than painkillers and can help to relieve symptoms. Gabapentin and pregabalin have better safety profiles than other options.
- Physical Therapy: Gentle exercises and guided activities can help the patient restore feeling and function to the limbs affected by alcoholic neuropathy. There’s no guarantee that function can be restored, but patients can learn to accomplish daily tasks while dealing with the neuropathy.
- Vitamin Supplements: Taking supplements such as Vitamins E, B6, and B12 along with folate, thiamine, and niacin can help ensure that the body is getting enough of the vital nutrients it needs to prevent further nerve damage.
- OTC Painkillers: Although the pain is typically more than most OTC medications can handle, these types of drugs can help relieve the symptoms slightly and are far less dangerous than prescription medications.
Diagnosing Alcoholic Neuropathy
If you're looking to get tested for alcoholic neuropathy, you will need to submit a copy of your medical history along with completing a physical examination and possibly submitting blood work. Alcoholic Neuropathy takes multiple years of prolonged alcohol use to take effect, so anyone with this kind of history should seek diagnosis and treatment. If you find that you have any of the symptoms listed above, you may have alcoholic neuropathy. There are several tests you should seek out if you believe you have this disorder.
- CBC (Complete Blood Count) Test: This test shows how well the immune system is working by measuring the flow of oxygen throughout the body. Those suffering from neuropathy will have problems with blood flow surrounding the peripheral nerves.
- Electromyography: Needles are inserted into areas of the skin and muscles in order to measure electrical activity surrounding the nerves, indicating the presence of alcoholic neuropathy if any.
- Nerve biopsy: This involves a doctor taking a small sample of the patient’s nerve tissue which is then tested for damage.
- Nerve conduction test: This involves placing electrodes on the patient’s skin and measuring the strength and speed of their nerve signals. These are compared to baseline speeds and can indicate the presence of neuropathy fairly easily.
How to Prevent Alcoholic Neuropathy
If you’re worried about the possibility of developing alcoholic neuropathy, your best option is to avoid drinking alcohol altogether or at least severely taper your drinking off to the point where it is no longer excessive. If you have trouble stopping drinking, it may be time to consider entering into a formal treatment program. If you’ve already gotten sober but still have symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy in your hands and feet, you can possibly prevent further damage by eating a healthy and balanced diet and taking vitamin supplements for Vitamin B6, B12, E, folate, thiamine, and niacin.
How Does Alcoholic Neuropathy Work
Alcoholic neuropathy is caused by the nutritional deficiencies associated with excessive alcohol consumption. Long-term heavy alcohol use can cause toxins to build up in the body and affect your ability to absorb nutrients. Alcohol also alters the structure and function of the stomach, liver, and kidneys that disrupt the body’s ability to rid itself of toxins. If the alcohol abuse has gone on long enough, the damage to these areas could actually be permanent.
How does Alcoholic Neuropathy Feel
We’ve compiled testimonials from around the web on the effects of alcoholic neuropathy. These are from real people and are not associated with Landmark Recovery in any way.
It was severe at first and really flares up at times but pretty much remains constant... I was on Lyrica, which did wonders for the nerve pain, but I had to evaluate the cost of the prescription with the pain I was feeling.
Early numbness of the soles followed by pins and needles and then the unbelievable burn. Although it started in the right foot the symptoms progressed to the left however, and the left foot has now only minor symptoms, being a slight burn and slight tingling and minor numbness on tips of my toes. I have never experienced this level of mind blowing pain. Absolutely no way to walk other than crutches and using my left leg for support.
After a couple days the deep pain in my arms goes away but I still have the random needle pricks and tingles in my hands and feet (less in hands). Also random pains that last 3-4 seconds in other random areas of my body like shoulders, sides etc. Another symptom is the top of my fingers feel like they are sunburned when something touches them. I still have not drank anything more since that one beer about a week prior.
For those who do stay sober, while recovery may not be 100% in most cases, the difference can be between constant pain and agony up to slight bother and having bad days. Peripheral nerves are slow to heal - for the same reason they are the first to fail. It is an ongoing process, and there will be setbacks as well. Expecting them and not freaking out is key. Stress is your enemy, especially when suffering from neuropathy.
If you’re concerned about the effects or possibility of developing alcoholic neuropathy, then you may want to seek the assistance of a clinical professional in diagnosing and offering treatment options for you. Alcoholic neuropathy is a serious issue that can last for a lifetime if not properly and identified and treated at an early stage. At Landmark Recovery, we pride ourselves on offering leading, evidence-based treatment for those suffering from any kind of substance use disorder. Visit our website to learn more about drug and alcohol rehab options such as residential treatment and intensive outpatient.