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Updated on July 31, 2023
5 min read

Alcoholic Neuropathy

What is Alcoholic Neuropathy?

Alcohol can have toxic effects on nerve tissues. People with alcoholic neuropathy have peripheral nerves damaged by excessive alcohol consumption.

The peripheral nerves send signals between the:1

  • Body
  • Spinal cord
  • Brain 

The following nutrients are all required for proper nerve function:

  • Vitamin B6
  • Vitamin B12
  • Vitamin E

Excessive alcohol consumption can change the levels of these nutrients. This change alters the spread of alcoholic neuropathy. 

How Does Alcoholic Neuropathy Damage Nerves?

Alcohol misuse can lead to malnutrition and nerve damage; both contribute to alcoholic neuropathy. Drinking too much alcohol can affect the processing, transportation, and absorption of essential nutrients.

Some people with alcohol addiction also have inadequate food intake. This habit can lead to poor food choices and nutritional deficiencies, harming overall health and preventing nerves from functioning correctly.

How Common is Alcoholic Neuropathy?

Among patients with chronic alcoholism, alcoholic neuropathy is the most common harmful condition resulting from the disorder. 

In the United States, approximately 25 to 66 percent of chronic alcohol users experience neuropathy.2 The majority of these alcohol users are working middle-class men.

Continuous drinkers are typically more affected than episodic drinkers. However, the incidence in the general population is unknown.

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What Causes Alcoholic Neuropathy?

The damage from alcohol-related neuropathy may be the direct result of alcohol addiction. Alcohol addiction can cause nutritional deficiencies, resulting in nerve damage.

Alcohol consumption decreases the absorption of nutrients like protein and vitamin B12. This results in significant vitamin deficiencies that affect many body areas, including the nerves.

Excessive drinking also alters the function of the:

Generally, it takes years for alcoholic neuropathy to develop. Some heavy alcohol drinkers experience a quicker onset and progression of nerve damage than others. However, it’s unclear why some people are more prone to alcoholic neuropathy than others.

Symptoms of Alcoholic Neuropathy

Alcoholic neuropathy can alter both movement and sensation. Symptoms of the condition range from slight discomfort to chronic pain and significant disability. 

Symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy can manifest in different body parts.

Arms and legs:

  • Numbness
  • Tingling and burning
  • Prickly, uncomfortable sensations
  • Loss of muscle functioning
  • Muscle spasms and cramps
  • Muscle weakness and atrophy
  • Movement disorders

Urinary and bowel:

  • Incontinence
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Issues with leaking urine
  • Feeling that the bladder has not emptied fully

Other:

  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Impotence
  • Impaired speech
  • Problems swallowing
  • Heat intolerance, especially after exercising
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness

Speak with your doctor if you have alcoholic neuropathy symptoms so they can provide medical advice. Early diagnosis and treatment increase the chances of a successful recovery. 

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Effects of Alcoholic Neuropathy

The effects of alcoholic neuropathy fall into four primary categories:

1. Decreased Sensation

Alcoholic neuropathy damages sensory nerves, resulting in a decreased sensation in the hands and feet.

A decrease in sensation can lead to:

  • More injuries: Someone with decreased sensation in their hands and feet are likely to have more frequent bumps and scrapes
  • Infections and bleeding: Due to the absence of normal pain and discomfort, sores and wounds may be left unprotected, resulting in further injury
  • Diminished sensory skills: Inability to balance and coordinate motor skills properly may cause problems with walking, typing, and writing

2. Pain and Hypersensitivity

Nerve damage can result in hypersensitivity to touch and resting pain. Light touch can feel exaggerated and painful, especially in the fingers and toes.

The pain may resemble:

  • Burning
  • Throbbing
  • Sharp pins and needles

As alcoholic neuropathy progresses, the pain can vary in intensity. It may reduce for months at a time before worsening again.

3. Muscle Weakness

Severe alcoholic neuropathy can affect motor weakness due to nerve damage. Our muscles require a message from nearby nerves to function. When this message is interrupted by damaged nerves, the muscles cannot work as usual.

4. Autonomic Neuropathy

Autonomic nerves control how the body's organs work in the autonomic nervous system. These organs include:

  • Bladder
  • Intestines
  • Stomach

Alcoholic neuropathy can weaken the autonomic nerves, causing impairment of bowel and bladder function and sexual dysfunction.

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How is Alcoholic Neuropathy Diagnosed?

During an examination with your doctor, you must share your complete medical history, allowing your doctor to diagnose alcoholic neuropathy accurately. If you have an alcohol addiction, you must disclose that.

Lab tests that may identify other potential causes of alcoholic neuropathy include:

  • Nerve biopsy
  • Nerve conduction tests
  • Upper GI and small bowel series
  • Esophagogastroduodenoscopy (EGD)
  • Neurological examination
  • Electromyography
  • Kidney, thyroid, and liver function tests
  • Complete blood count (CBC)

Blood tests can also assess for a nutritional deficiency linked to nerve health and alcohol consumption.

How is Alcoholic Neuropathy Treated?

There are several treatment options for alcoholic neuropathy. But first, those diagnosed with alcoholic neuropathy must stop drinking

Treatment will initially focus on addressing the issues related to alcohol addiction. Some treatment options include:

Once you’ve addressed excessive drinking, your doctor can focus on the neuropathy.

Treatments for alcoholic neuropathy may include:3

  • Vitamin supplements to improve nerve health
  • Prescription pain relievers
  • Medication for people with issues urinating 
  • Physical therapy to treat muscle atrophy
  • Orthopedic appliances
  • Safety gear and stabilizing footwear to prevent injuries 
  • Special stockings for your legs to stop any dizziness

Can Alcoholic Neuropathy Be Cured? 

Nerve damage from alcoholic neuropathy is usually permanent. If you don’t stop drinking excessive alcohol, your symptoms will likely worsen. 

This could lead to:

  • Disability
  • Damage to your arms and legs
  • Chronic pain 

However, if diagnosed early enough, you can reduce the damage from alcoholic neuropathy. Abstaining from alcohol and improving your diet can sometimes result in a moderate to full recovery.

Summary

Alcoholic neuropathy is a type of nerve damage that affects heavy alcohol drinkers. It can cause severe symptoms, such as chronic pain and numbness in the extremities. Consult your doctor if you experience symptoms related to alcoholic neuropathy. An early diagnosis can help reduce the damage and improve the prognosis.

Updated on July 31, 2023
6 sources cited
Updated on July 31, 2023
All Alcoholrehabhelp content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure as much factual accuracy as possible.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only link to reputable media sites, academic research institutions and, whenever possible, medically peer reviewed studies.
  1. Peripheral Neuropathy Fact Sheet, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, 2020.
  2. Sadowski A., Houck, RC.Alcoholic Neuropathy.” StatPearls, StatPearls Publishing, 2021.
  3. Kanwaljit C., Tiwari, V. “Alcoholic neuropathy: possible mechanisms and future treatment possibilities.” British journal of clinical pharmacology, 2012.
  4. Julian et al. Alcohol-related peripheral neuropathy: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Neurol, 2019.
  5. Hammi C., Yeung, B.Neuropathy.” StatPearls, StatPearls Publishing, 2021.
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All content created by Alcohol Rehab Help is sourced from current scientific research and fact-checked by an addiction counseling expert. However, the information provided by Alcohol Rehab Help is not a substitute for professional treatment advice.
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