Alcoholism and Nerve Damage

Posted on February 8th, 2013

Alcoholism and Nerve DamageNerve damage is the common term for a medical condition called neuropathy. People with neuropathy have some form of degraded function in specialized cells, called neurons, which provide sensation throughout the body and control a wide variety of voluntary and involuntary actions and processes. Alcohol (ethanol, ethyl alcohol) damages normal nerve function when it accumulates inside your body. Alcoholics who sustain heavy alcohol intake for extended periods of time can develop especially serious forms of nerve damage. Doctors refer to nerve damage that results from excessive alcohol intake as alcoholic neuropathy.

Understanding the Nervous System(s)

Your nerves play a key role in essentially everything you do throughout the day. For instance, your brain itself contains tens of billions of neurons that support and ultimately control such basic processes as breathing, thinking, seeing, feeling, and moving. Along with your spinal cord, your brain forms your central nervous system. Another nerve network, called the peripheral nervous system, is connected to various segments of your spinal cord; it contains all of the neurons found in the rest of your body. Effectively, your brain acts as the master control system for all of your nerves and issues commands through your spinal cord. In turn, your spinal cord gathers incoming information from the nerves in your body and sends it to your brain for correlation and interpretation.

Some of your body’s nerve-related processes-such as temperature regulation, blood pressure and heartbeat-are either fully or partially involuntary. For this reason, nerves that support these processes are sometimes referred to as autonomic (automatic) nerves. Other nerves specialize in transmitting and/or coordinating the signals that allow you to control your muscles; for this reason, scientists frequently refer to these nerves as motor (motion-related) nerves. Another group of nerves transmits and/or coordinates information from your five senses; scientists commonly refer to these nerves as sensory nerves. Nerves that support all of these functions are located in both the central and peripheral nervous systems.

Alcoholism’s Effects

Alcoholics have ongoing problems with alcohol because they habitually drink (or used to drink) in excessive amounts that change normal function inside the brain. As a result of this fact, specialists in the field commonly view alcoholism as a form of chronic brain disease. Alcohol is toxic to your body, and in addition to its effects on the brain, it can damage the majority of your remaining major organ systems. Generally speaking, the more alcohol you consume on a regular basis, the higher your chances for undergoing disruptive changes that significantly degrade your health. Since active alcoholics typically maintain a high alcohol intake, they have increased risks for certain disease processes when compared to people who drink in moderate amounts or don’t drink at all.

Alcoholic Neuropathy

In most cases, people who develop alcoholic neuropathy have been active alcoholics for at least 10 years. However, in some cases, the disorder occurs in people who drink heavily for shorter periods of time. Nobody knows for sure how many people experience the effects of alcoholic neuropathy, Medscape Reference explains. However, the condition appears in roughly 25 to 65 percent of people who qualify as chronic alcoholics based on criteria established by the American Psychiatric Association, which creates the most widely accepted definitions for mental health-related disorders in the U.S.

For the most part, alcoholic neuropathy damages motor nerves and sensory nerves. Symptoms of motor nerve damage can include muscle cramps, muscle pain, muscle twitching, partial or complete loss of normal muscle control, and the development of certain movement-related problems that qualify as their own separate disorders. Damage in the sensory nerves can trigger pain and a group of abnormal sensations known as paresthesias; this category includes numbness, as well as tingling, burning and pricking sensations. Sensory nerve symptoms typically appear in the upper and/or lower extremities (arms, legs, hands, or feet). People with severe forms of alcoholic neuropathy may also develop problems with their autonomic nerves. Potential symptoms of autonomic nerve-related damage include urinary incontinence, incomplete bladder emptying, male impotence, abnormal intolerance to heat, diarrhea, and constipation.


Doctors disagree to a certain extent about the true cause of alcoholic neuropathy. Some of them believe that the presence of alcohol is directly responsible for nerve damage associated with the condition. Others believe that the presence of alcohol triggers deficiencies in certain key nutrients that support normal nerve function; in this scenario, deficiency actually triggers the onset of neuropathy. According to the US National Library of Medicine, both of these factors probably contribute substantially to the condition. The nerve damage done by alcoholic neuropathy is permanent in most cases, and will gradually grow worse unless the affected individual seeks treatment, stops drinking, and corrects any nutrient deficiencies. Potential long-term consequences of the condition include chronic pain and moderate to severe physical disabilities.

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