You are probably aware of how catastrophic alcohol misuse can be on the overall health. It can cause liver damage, heart failure, cancer, diabetes, and more. But did you know it can also result in neuropathy?
Alcoholic neuropathy is one of the most widespread and least known consequences of heavy alcohol abuse. It’s such a common issue that 25% to 66% of chronic alcohol drinkers have some kind of neuropathy.
This disease can have a massive impact on the peripheral and central nervous systems. It can result in numbness, pain, and burning sensations. Unfortunately, these risks can become permanent. The key to managing these dangerous effects is spotting the neuropathy as soon as possible.
Here is how alcoholic neuropathy can affect your life, including viable treatment options.
What Is Alcoholic Neuropathy, Exactly?
- From 12% to 30% of alcohol abusers have a peripheral nervous system disorder.
Alcohol neuropathy is a typical side effect in people with chronic alcohol abuse disorder. It is a condition that affects up to 66% of chronic alcohol abuse patients. The longer it remains untreated, the more debilitating it becomes.
Eventually, it can cause a loss of nerve function, primarily in the extremities. Some of this damage can have a lasting impact. The reason for that is relatively simple. Heavy alcohol consumption is toxic to the nerve tissue.
When people drink too much, they can feel an uncomfortable tingling sensation in their limbs, which can become painful. In patients with the condition, the peripheral nerves suffer heavy damage. They can’t transmit proper signals in the body between the brain and the spinal cord.
To prevent any additional nerve damage, drinkers must abstain from alcohol. Otherwise, the impact can become permanent. If you are struggling with neuropathy, contact the best 90-day substance abuse treatment center for alcoholism in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas. Here, you can get all the help you need.
What Causes Alcoholic Neuropathy?
- Alcohol enters the blood in just 5 min after ingestion. But it takes 30 to 90min for its absorption to reach the highest peak.
Studies show that alcoholic neuropathy could be the result of the direct toxic effect of alcohol or its metabolites and nutritional deficiencies (for example, thiamine deficiency). However, the exact cause of the disease is still unknown.
Experts believe that chronic alcohol intake leads to oxidative stress, which then causes neuronal damage. This damage affects signaling functions, causes nutritional deficiency, and interferes with the endogenous antioxidants (metabolism) in the human body. In the long-term, the heavy intake results in neuropathic pain.
One of the key reasons for such an effect is the source of calories.
Did you know that most alcoholic dependent individuals draw their calories from alcoholic beverages packed with calories? These drinks have little or no nutritional value.
Constant alcohol misuse depletes the liver of all the proteins and nutrients it needs to function properly. These proteins are necessary for the system to create energy. With the lack of proteins comes a terrible imbalance, resulting in a disturbance in lipid and protein metabolism.
As a result, patients struggling with alcohol abuse are also at risk of undernourishment. This will have a serious adverse effect on multiple metabolic pathways and will also influence the nervous system.
Although the central nervous system has its personal defensive mechanism to protect itself from toxic and metabolic influences, the brain will still suffer. The peripheral nervous system doesn’t have a protective barrier around the peripheral nerves. That’s why a huge portion of alcohol abusers are at risk of developing alcoholic neuropathy.
But that’s not all. According to experts, alcohol abuse can cause various neurological disorders such as cognitive impairment, confusion, and cerebellar ataxia. So, the nervous system is bound to suffer when you consume too much alcohol.
How Much Is Too Much?
It’s impossible to pinpoint the exact amount of alcohol intake that could cause alcoholic neuropathy.
Neuropathy doesn’t happen in everyone the same way. Some people can drink for a very long time and never develop this condition. At the same time, others will start seeing the symptoms just a couple of years after developing a drinking habit.
According to the CDC, people should drink in moderation. The maximum recommended guidelines for a healthy individual include:
- One drink a day for women
- Two drinks a day for men
Anything above that recommended amount can result in some level of damage. However, if patients have already developed neuropathy, abstaining is critical. You must stop drinking, or you will experience actual physical damage to the nerve cells.
Does Alcoholic Neuropathy Go Away?
When alcoholic neuropathy causes nerve damage, this damage is often permanent. The symptoms worsen with time unless patients stop drinking. With continued alcohol abuse, people become vulnerable to chronic pain, disability, and damage to their extremities.
But, when caught in its early phases, patients can minimize nerve damage. If you stop consuming alcohol and work on your diet, you can achieve a full (or moderate) recovery. While taking supplements can help you manage your deficiencies.
Is an Alcoholic Neuropathy Fatal?
This condition may not be life-threatening, but if left untreated, it can cause permanent damage. It can drastically reduce a person’s quality of life. The constant pain in the legs and arms will make it extremely difficult for people to function normally.
Depending on how severe the nerve damage is, it can cause mild discomfort to severe disability. This is also something that can have a long-term psychological impact. Emotional distress can be a serious problem.
How Long Does Alcoholic Neuropathy Last?
Patients who suffer from nerve damage can feel tingling or burning-like sensations in their arms and feet. This discomfort can last for a couple of months to even years. The condition progresses very slowly for months to years and almost always will affect the lower limbs.
However, if you stop drinking, the symptoms can subside, and you may be able to reduce the possibility of any further deterioration. Unfortunately, in most cases, the damage that alcoholic neuropathy causes is permanent.
What Does Alcoholic Neuropathy Feel Like?
This condition typically causes constant pain in the feet and hands. But, the pain is not the only troublesome aspect of alcohol-related neuropathy.
It can also feel like sharp needles, pins, throbbing, and burning. The longer it lasts, the worse the feeling becomes. The pain will increase in intensity, might disappear for a few months, and re-appear before worsening.
Research shows that most patients with alcoholic neuropathy displayed poor sensory features, numbness, and impaired sensation of vibrations. Only a small number of patients felt a weakness in the upper limbs.
In alcohol-related neuropathy, the prevalence of pain was noticed in 5 different studies with a 42% rate. The lower limbs were often more painful than the upper limbs. And exactly four studies reported noticing some level of abnormalities in the sensory nerves.
Although the pain was common, not every patient experienced nerve damage the same way. The symptoms may vary depending on their autonomic, sensory, and motor nerve damage.
With the constant sensory damage, people will experience a lack of sensation in their feet and hands. The consequences can be serious. Patients become vulnerable to frequent scrapes and bumps. Their wounds can be prone to bleeding and infections, which will impair their daily activities.
According to clinical reports, muscle weakness can have a serious long-term effect. In severe alcohol-related neuropathy cases, muscle weakness appears as a result of heavy nerve damage. Thus, the nerves can’t receive messages, making it difficult for them to function properly.
Because of this interruption, the feet and hands tend to feel weaker. But, when neuropathy affects the lower part of the body, these muscles will have poor organ control. That means you may experience intestine, stomach, and bladder problems. So, it’s not uncommon for alcoholic neuropathy to cause sexual dysfunction.
- After analyzing 90 men, Spanish researchers found that almost 69% of volunteers with sexual difficulties suffered from nerve damage, primarily peripheral nerve damage. Affected patients also had extreme symptoms of impotence and sexual dysfunction.
When you pair that with pain and hypersensitivity, it becomes difficult for the hands and feet to function. So, people tend to lose coordination of their extremities and balance. This not only makes it impossible to enjoy intercourse, but it also interferes with your daily life.
Other Risk Factors
Alcohol is not the only thing that can lead to neuropathy. Certain conditions can also cause nerve damage. It’s crucial that you realize which of these conditions have an impact. When you pair them with alcohol, you can make the neuropathy worse.
Here are the typical risk factors for neuropathy.
Alcohol already depletes the body of necessary nutrients. But, when you don’t consume enough vitamins and minerals from your regular meals, you can experience folate or B12 deficiency. This can cause peripheral neuropathy.
Metabolic conditions often result in neuropathy. There is a 6% to 51% prevalence rate of peripheral neuropathy in diabetic adults. The constant blood sugar fluctuations can damage the nerves. When you consume a lot of alcohol, the nerves become even more vulnerable to damage.
For the nerves to function properly, the body needs a stable balance of chemicals and salts in the blood. This is something the kidneys get to control. However, when there is an illness affecting the kidneys, it becomes difficult to filter out all those chemicals.
Drinking puts a heavy strain on the kidneys. The alcohol hinders the body’s ability to filter out poisons, chemicals, and other potentially dangerous elements, therefore damaging the kidneys. The other problem with alcohol is that it is a diuretic, meaning it dries out the system. And without a sufficient amount of water, the kidneys can suffer heavy damage and lose functionality.
When the body is exposed to toxic compounds, the system is at risk of developing neuropathy. The toxins can impact the nerve cells and interfere with their function. Anything from sniffing paint, glue, or various inhalants can have such an effect.
How to Diagnose Alcohol-Related Neuropathy
Doctors will use a combination of diagnostic procedures to determine whether you have alcoholic neuropathy. They will do a physical exam, assess your medical history, do nerve and blood tests if necessary. Here is a detailed overview of each option that can help diagnose the condition.
- Physical exam – The first thing the doctor will do is a physical exam. They will assess your neurological and physical reflexes. That includes sensation and muscle strength. They will see if you are sensitive to vibrations or touch. By using a pinprick, they will assess your senses, coordination, and reflexes. If you experience any weakness, you may need further tests.
- NCV (nerve condition study) and EMG (Electromyography) – In the case of weak muscles, assessing the nerve function becomes necessary. The doctor will analyze the patterns of your extremities, including the nerve wave amplitude and function. These tests will not locate the cause of the alcoholic neuropathy but will help assess the level of nerve damage.
- Nerve biopsy – Although more uncommon, a nerve biopsy will sometimes be used to find the pattern and grade of the nerve damage.
- Additional testing – If the symptoms align with that of alcoholic neuropathy, the doctor will ask for urine, blood tests, or imaging. This will help rule out any possible conditions that may be similar to neuropathy.
What Are the Health Conditions that Mimic Alcohol-Induced Neuropathy?
There are certain medical conditions that mirror this particular health issue. That’s why a lot of people can confuse alcoholic neuropathy and end up with misdiagnoses. These medical conditions include:
- Muscle disease
- Spine disease
- Diabetic neuropathy
- Multiple sclerosis
- Peripheral vascular disease
- ALS or any motor neuron disease
Because the symptoms are so similar, it’s essential to point out to your doctor your alcohol misuse. This will help them determine the right diagnosis.
How to Treat the Neuropathy
Multiple treatment methods can soothe the pain of neuropathy. Options like anti-depressants and pain medications are the more common choice. Although there isn’t a single FDA approved treatment method, doctors will focus first on treating the pain and discomfort.
People can receive one or multiple treatment options, such as:
- Pain relief (available in over-the-counter meds): Ibuprofen, naproxen, Tylenol, etc.
- Vitamin supplements: B12, B6, E, etc.
- Pain relief (prescription meds): tramadol, gabapentin, anticonvulsants, and capsaicin cream.
- Urinary issues medicine: solifenacin, tolterodine, duloxetine, and imipramine.
- Physical therapy: light, regular exercises focused on restoring balance, blood flow, and muscle function.
- Orthopedic aids: orthotic devices, pull bars, stairlift, etc.
Experts believe that the ideal treatment option should be to halt the damage done to the peripheral nerves and focus on restoring their normal function. The ideal way to do that is with proper and complete alcohol abstinence and implementing vitamin B supplements along with a well-balanced diet.
Unfortunately, using just vitamin supplements is not enough to curb the symptoms of alcohol-dependent individuals. That’s why it is essential to focus on the multiple pathways that have led to the development of the condition.
For instance, patients need to learn how to manage their habitual alcohol misuse. They also need to obtain various therapeutic agents that will help manage and prevent nerve damage.
This is where an alcohol detox at the best 90-day substance abuse treatment center for alcoholism in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, can help. At an inpatient facility, people get to control their drinking habits and abstain from alcohol successfully. This will help reduce the impact of nerve damage and manage the condition.
But when the damage is too severe, especially to the liver, patients may need a liver transplant. In cases such as these, the transplant will provide the body with a healthy environment to begin healing from the toxic environment it had prior to the transplant. It can help improve the symptoms of neuropathy.
However, when the neuropathy has advanced so much that it has caused permanent damage, the liver transplant may have little to no effect on the larger symptoms in the rest of the body.
How Does the Recovery Process Feel Like?
Nothing guarantees a successful recovery from alcoholic neuropathy. However, it is possible for patients to experience full relief once they learn how to manage their symptoms. Depending on the severity of the condition, it can take weeks to even years to cope with the impact left by the neuropathy.
The key to a successful recovery is to seek on-time treatment. The sooner you recognize the condition, the easier it is to treat it. With a quick reaction, you can lessen the overall damage to the nerve cells. So, you will only have to deal with alcohol withdrawal, which is a smaller price to pay.
What you can do is drop the drinking habit. Cutting back is not enough to lessen the nerve damage. It is important that you completely remove all the alcohol from your system. The recovery can be hard, but in a proper facility, like the best 90-day substance abuse treatment center for alcoholism in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, you can keep the withdrawal symptoms under wraps.
Doctors will help you mitigate the damage, while a physician may prescribe various supplements that will replenish your system. If necessary, you may be advised to take pain medications, unless you already have a dependency on opioids.
Alcohol-induced neuropathy is not a condition you should take lightly. It can cause chronic pain, problems with normal bodily functions, and in severe cases even disability. If you recognize the symptoms, seek medical treatment. That way, you get to minimize its impact and live a healthier life.
When it comes to treating the condition, it is best to abstain from alcohol and restore your nutrient balance. With a healthy diet, you can halt its effect on the nerves and move to a full or partial recovery. What’s important is that you don’t ignore this disease, or it may cause permanent damage.
Instead, opt for ongoing support. In an inpatient facility, you will cut off the alcohol consumption and allow the body to recover properly. These are the results you need when you want to manage neuropathy.
John Eckelbarger is a Business Development Representative for Stonegate Center. With a BSA in Chemistry from the University of Texas at Austin, he has an interest in the neurobiology of addiction as well as the pharmacology of drugs. He hopes to bolster Stonegate Center’s status at the forefront of addiction medicine through bold, innovative content creation. He is currently pursuing his MBA in Finance from Texas Christian University.