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Alcoholism Effects: Alcoholic Neuropathy

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Alcohol is one of the most commonly abused psychoactive substances in the United States. As a commonly abused addictive substance, alcohol use disorders affect many people all across the country, and alcoholism remains the most common addiction treated in medical detox facilities.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, an estimated 16 million people struggle with alcohol use disorders in the United States. Alcohol abuse can lead to a wide variety of health issues. Alcohol abuse has been linked to several serious medical conditions, including various types of cancer. Most people are aware of the damage alcohol can do to your liver over time, but there’s another consequence that most people may not be aware of: alcoholic neuropathy.

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that can have a significant impact on your nervous system function in high doses. But it can also negatively affect your nervous system over time. In some cases, it can lead to damage that inhibits certain functions and can cause pain or discomfort.

If you or someone you know had been drinking excessively, learn more about alcoholic neuropathy and the risks to your nervous system that are posed by drinking.

What is Alcoholic Neuropathy?

Neuropathy is a term that’s used to describe damage to the nerves that results in nervous system problems like weakness, numbness, and pain in the body, typically in the hands, feet, and limbs. Alcohol can be toxic to the point of damaging nerves which leads to neuropathy. 

Your brain communicates with your body by sending signals throughout the body via your nervous system. Your nervous system allows your brain to control motor functions, provide feedback through touch, and it controls the autonomic nervous system, which manages things like breathing and blood pressure. When a nerve becomes damaged, it can block or inhibit the link between your brain and some of these functions. 

Alcoholic neuropathy is a form of polyneuropathy, which is when multiple nerves are affected at once, as opposed to mononeuropathy which is when a single nerve is affected, usually because of injury. 

Alcohol can become toxic to the nervous system when it starts to affect vitamins and chemicals that are needed to facilitate a healthy nervous system. Thiamine, folate, niacin, and vitamins B6, B12, and E are all important for healthy brain functions and can be affected by heavy drinking. Over time, a deficiency of these vitamins and chemicals can damage your nerves. 

Symptoms of Alcoholic Neuropathy

Alcohol neuropathy is often associated with symptoms that affect the arms and legs. Neuropathy often starts with the extremities and works it’s way up the limbs as it gets worse. This is called peripheral neuropathy because it affects the peripheral nerves that go down as far as your fingertips and toes. Damaged nerves that affect your hands, feet, arms, and legs can cause the following symptoms in the affected area:

  • Numbness
  • Burning
  • Tingling
  • Pins and needles
  • Muscle spasms
  • Cramps
  • Muscle weakness
  • Loss of strength or muscle tone
  • Movement disorders
  • Pain 

Though peripheral neuropathy is the most common type of neuropathy, alcohol can also damage nerves that are associated with your autonomic nervous system. That is the part of your nervous system that affects functions that you don’t directly control like your breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, bowel, and other functions. Some of the symptoms that are associated with neuropathy of the autonomic nerves, including urinary and bowel functions involve:

  • Incontinence
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Problems with starting to urinate
  • Feeling that the bladder hasn’t been fully emptied

Alcoholic neuropathy can also cause a variety of other problems as it affects different parts of your nervous system. It can cause a range of other symptoms, including sexual dysfunction, impaired speech, difficulty swallowing, heat intolerance, nausea, and lightheadedness. 

Treatment for Alcoholic Neuropathy

In some cases, all it takes to treat alcoholic neuropathy is to stop drinking. Stopping alcohol use can allow the levels of important nervous system chemicals to return to normal, reversing neuropathic symptoms. 

However, some cases of alcoholic neuropathy can be long-lasting or permanent. If you are struggling with an alcohol use disorder, you might need to go through addiction treatment. This can address both the substance abuse problem and the underlying physical and psychological problems associated with it, including neuropathy.

When alcohol use is being addressed, you may begin to treat neuropathy directly with vitamin supplements, physical therapy, prescription pain relievers, and other treatment options. 

How to Prevent Alcoholic Neuropathy

Preventing alcoholic neuropathy is a simple solution that can be difficult for some to achieve. Moderating alcohol can help prevent a wide variety of serious medical and psychological issues, including alcoholic neuropathy. 

However, if you already have an alcohol use disorder, moderating alcohol may be easier said than done. Alcoholism is a serious chronic disease that can be extremely difficult to overcome on your own. However, addiction is a treatable disease that can be managed, leading to lasting sobriety. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with an alcohol use disorder, it’s important to address the issue as soon as possible. Addiction is a progressive disease, which means that it can get worse over time, affecting multiple areas of your life, including your health. 

Seeking addiction treatment early can help you avoid some of the most severe symptoms of addiction, like alcohol neuropathy. To take the first steps on your road to recovery, start to learn more about alcohol addiction treatment today and how it might be able to help you. 

Sources

American Psychiatric Association. (2017, January). What Is Addiction? from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/addiction/what-is-addiction

Mayo Clinic. (2019, May 22). Peripheral neuropathy. from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/peripheral-neuropathy/symptoms-causes/syc-20352061

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2019, May 6). Alcohol Use Disorder. from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-use-disorders

Rubin, M. (2018, July). Polyneuropathy – Brain, Spinal Cord, and Nerve Disorders. from https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/brain,-spinal-cord,-and-nerve-disorders/peripheral-nerve-disorders/polyneuropathy

U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2019, September 11). Mononeuropathy: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000780.htm

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