What Is Alcoholic Neuropathy?
By Nathan Falde
Extended periods of heavy drinking can cause alcohol to accumulate in the tissues of the body, unleashing a tidal wave of harmful effects. These include a permanent loss of functioning in the peripheral nervous system, which controls movement, sensation and motor coordination. In medical terms this is known as alcoholic neuropathy, a potentially disabling condition that affects up to two-thirds of those who suffer from a clinically diagnosable alcohol use disorder.
How Does Alcoholic Neuropathy Develop?
The cells of the nervous system cannot function properly without steady supplies of a number of important vitamins and minerals, such as thiamine, niacin, folate, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12. Alcohol in excessive quantities leaches these nutrients away, causing nerve cells to gradually sicken and die. Since dead nerve cells in human beings will not regenerate, this condition — and its side effects — are irreversible.
Men and women who abuse alcohol generally have poor diets, which tend to reinforce the chronic nutrient shortages that contribute to the progressive development of alcoholic neuropathy.
Symptoms of Alcohol-Related Nerve Damage
Damage to the peripheral nervous system affects movement and sensation in the arms and legs, leading to a range of chronic and unpleasant side effects, including:
- A painful tingling or burning sensation
- Prickliness or itchiness
- Muscle spasms
- Muscle weakness
- Movement difficulties based on poor muscle coordination
The bowels and the urinary tract are often compromised by alcohol-related nerve damage as well. Telltale signs here include:
- Slow-starting urination
- Frequent urination, often in small amounts
- Constant feelings of fullness in the bladder
- Impotence or sexual dysfunction
Slurred or impaired speech is another common sign of alcohol-related nerve damage, along with throat constriction or swallowing problems, intolerance to heat, dizziness and frequent nausea or vomiting.
Chronic, moderate-to-severe pain and disability often accompany alcoholic neuropathy, especially when it advances past the initial stages. Doctors rely on a range of tests to diagnose this condition, and problem drinkers experiencing any of the above symptoms should consult with a physician immediately.
Overcoming Alcoholic Neuropathy
Unfortunately, the nerve damage caused by overexposure to alcohol cannot be cured. The human body cannot replace destroyed nerve cells, and while victims of alcoholic neuropathy may be able to halt the advance of their condition, they will not be able to repair the damage that has already been done.
When alcohol-related nerve damage is diagnosed, changes in diet that supply ample amounts of the nutrients necessary for proper nerve functioning are recommended. These vitamins and minerals can help bring damaged but still-living nerve cells back from the brink of extinction. Pain medication is also sometimes prescribed to help sufferers cope with the effects of their conditions.
But the only sure way to stop the spread of alcoholic neuropathy is to quit drinking, permanently and without relapse.
Medline Plus: Alcoholic Neuropathy
Center for Peripheral Neuropathy/Types of Peripheral Neuropathy/Alcoholic Neuropathy