What Is Alcoholic Neuropathy?
Alcoholic neuropathy happens to individuals who drink heavily, causing damage to their peripheral nerves. Peripheral nerves connect the brain and spinal cord to our sensory organs, muscles, and limbs. This nerve damage is caused by malnutrition resulting from excessive alcohol consumption.
When the nerve is damaged, it affects the axons responsible for sending electrical signals to other nerves. Chronic alcohol use also damages the protective coating around the nerve called the myelin. The effect that this damage has on the motor and sensory nerves causes individuals to feel pain due to the effect it has on the communication with the central nervous system. This impacts functions like physical sensations and movement.
Drinking alcohol can also cause nutritional deficiencies by preventing the body's ability to process, transport, and absorb important nutrients like thiamine, vitamin E, and B12. Those with alcohol use disorder tend to have an inadequate diet which contributes to these nutrient deficiencies. The deficiencies in these essential nutrients can affect overall health and nerve function.
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Symptoms of Alcoholic Neuropathy
When the peripheral nervous system is damaged, alcoholic neuropathy symptoms tend to manifest as nerve pain in the hands, feet, and limbs. This can include:
- Decreased sensation in hands, feet, and limbs - Leading to an increase in everyday minor injuries like bumps and scrapes.
- Shooting or burning pain in hands, feet, and limbs - This tends to be the worst part of alcoholic neuropathy, fluctuating in severity all the time.
- Sexual dysfunction - Due to autonomic nerves weakening when you have alcoholic neuropathy.
- Incontinence, constipation, and diarrhea - Similar to sexual dysfunction, autonomic nerve weakening can lead to bowel and bladder problems.
- Difficulty swallowing
- Wounds healing slowly
- Impaired speech
There are multiple ways of testing for alcoholic neuropathy but it is important to be honest about the level of alcohol consumption. Without accurately knowing how much alcohol is consumed, it will be difficult to get a proper diagnosis. There are many tests that are used to identify alcoholic neuropathy, and multiple tests may need to be done to get a diagnosis. Some of the tests used are:
- Complete Blood Count (CBC) test - Blood tests are used to indicate a person's overall health including liver and kidney function and blood sugar levels. They can test for changes in blood cells that may be related to alcohol intake.
- Electromyography - This measures electrical activity by inserting needles into areas of the skin and muscles, revealing any sign of alcoholic neuropathy.
- Neurological examination - This is a physical examination where a doctor will check your reflexes, coordination, level of muscle weakness, and sensory function.
- Nerve conduction tests - A nerve conduction test is done by placing electrodes on the skin to measure the speed and strength of the individual's nerve signals.
- Nerve biopsy - A small sample of nerve tissue is taken by a doctor to test for damage.
Along with these tests, doctors may also want to test for nutrient and vitamin deficiencies. Supplementing vitamins and nutrients is vital to prevent alcoholic neuropathy as these deficiencies are the reason for peripheral nerve damage. Another additional assessment may include imaging tests of the brain and spinal cord.
Chronic alcoholics are already at risk of developing alcoholic neuropathy symptoms due to the direct toxic effects of alcohol. However, there are other factors like medical history and gender that may contribute to the likelihood of developing alcohol-related neuropathy. Studies on alcoholic neuropathy have found an increased prevalence in males.
Alcoholic neuropathy treatment can help manage the symptoms; however, a doctor will most likely require you to either limit or stop alcohol intake. Chronic alcohol use is the cause of alcoholic neuropathy, therefore addiction treatment will reduce the likelihood of developing severe alcoholic neuropathy. Inpatient detoxes are beneficial to stop drinking, nevertheless, outpatient rehab and community support are still effective at this. Detoxing from alcohol can be dangerous, therefore it is important to seek professional help when doing this.
Alcohol abuse is the sole cause of neuropathic symptoms. For medical treatments to work, you must receive addiction treatment. Due to the individuality of each case, every treatment plan will be different but could involve a few of the following:
- Vitamin supplements - Used to help with deficiencies in vitamin E, B6, and B12, and others caused by peripheral neuropathy.
- Pain relief - Whether over the counter or prescribed, this helps with the discomfort of neuropathic pain.
- Physical therapy - Light exercises and activities to help with muscle and balance problems like muscle weakness.
- Orthopedic measures to aid mobility - These can be orthotic devices like raised heels in shoes or additional support like pull-up bars in the bathroom or stair lifts.
Specialists like physiotherapists in alcohol-related neuropathy can be referred by doctors if that is the best treatment process. Neuropathic pain can be really agonizing but with support and medication, it can get better. Future treatment possibilities need to look at treating the underlying pathologies behind alcoholic peripheral neuropathy. Clinical pharmacology currently masks the pain with medications that can have negative side effects.
Can alcohol neuropathy be cured?
There is no cure for alcoholic neuropathy, but treatment can help to manage the symptoms and improve quality of life. Treatment may include medications to control pain and other symptoms, physical therapy to help with muscle weakness and coordination, and lifestyle changes, such as reducing alcohol intake and quitting smoking. In some cases, nerve damage may be reversible if the individual stops drinking alcohol and receives treatment early on. However, in severe cases of alcohol neuropathy, the nerve damage may be permanent.
Is Alcohol-Induced Nerve Damage Permanent?
Peripheral nerves, unfortunately, take a while to heal, so you may have setbacks. Nerve cells can be regenerated but this is dependent on the health of your nervous system. It is completely normal to have these setbacks, but overcoming the alcohol use disorder will be what kickstarts your road to a better life. Excessive alcohol use will cause further nerve damage if continued. Although there may not always be a full recovery from peripheral neuropathy, with the right treatment and change in lifestyle, the symptoms can go from chronic pain to slightly irritating pain.
Peripheral nerves are harder to reverse the damage of, still there are many treatment options that will assist you in making the symptoms more manageable. Luckily, if it is identified and treated at an early stage then full recovery can be made. This is why professional medical advice is required immediately if you start to see alcoholic neuropathy signs.
What Is a Dangerous Level of Alcohol Consumption?
Peer-reviewed studies have estimated that in the United States alone, 65 percent of those with alcohol use disorder also have alcoholic neuropathy. How much is too much? The Substance and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) define binge drinking as four or more drinks for men and five or more for women at one time, at least one day in the past month. They go on to say that heavy alcohol use requires five or more days of binge drinking in the past month. Peripheral neuropathy is present in 46.3% of individuals with chronic alcohol consumption when confirmed by nerve conduction studies.
Treat Your Alcohol-Induced Neuropathy Now
Usually, alcoholic neuropathy manifests as constant pain in various areas of the body, making it difficult to do everyday tasks. Once you reduce a person's alcohol consumption, the toxic effects of it start to minimize. This will either stop you from developing alcohol-related neuropathy or reduce the severity of symptoms.
Recovery is not easy but with treatment at Cornerstone, alcohol addiction can be treated and allow patients to improve their lives. With our inpatient and outpatient services, we can provide you with the tools and treatment to either prevent or overcome the symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy.