Alcohol abuse affects systems throughout the body, including the motor and sensory nerves. These nerves communicate with the central nervous system (CNS) and autonomic nervous system (ANS), impacting movement and other functions throughout the body such as physical sensations, heart rate, and muscle strength.
Prolonged exposure to heavy alcohol use can damage these nerves, which can result in a number of uncomfortable and potentially-dangerous symptoms. Nerve damage that is caused by or related to alcohol abuse is known as alcoholic neuropathy, or polyneuropathy when multiple nerves are affected.
Alcoholic polyneuropathy is not reversible, but it is treatable. There are several signs and symptoms that can indicate whether someone has developed alcohol-related nerve damage.
Seeking professional help is the best way to determine an appropriate treatment plan for both the nerve damage and alcohol abuse. Once a person has completed a medical detox program, additional treatment for neuropathy can be integrated into their recovery treatment plan.
What Causes Alcoholic Polyneuropathy?
The causes and how much alcohol causes neuropathy is unclear. However, it is most common among people with a history of heavy, long-term alcohol abuse.
Studies on this condition have estimated that up to 66 percent of chronic alcoholics develop permanent nerve damage as a result of their drinking. Long-term alcohol abuse can wreak havoc on several vital organs and essential functions in the body. Neuropathy, or polyneuropathy, is just one unfortunate consequence.
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In studying the causes of polyneuropathy in alcoholics, most experts point to poor nutrition and the toxicity of long-term alcohol exposure. Many people who abuse alcohol neglect their diet, either eating too much or too little of essential nutrients important to maintaining good health.
Alcohol can also cause depletion of some important nutrients, leading to deficiencies. Nutrient deficiencies can over time have a serious impact on the nerves, resulting in mild to severe nerve damage.
The most common vitamin deficiencies linked to alcoholic neuropathy include:
- thiamine (vitamin B1)
- vitamin B12
- folic acid
- niacin (vitamin B3)
- vitamin A
- pyridoxine (vitamin B6)
- biotin and pantothenic acid
Symptoms Of Alcoholic Neuropathy
The signs and symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy can vary based on the person, their medical history, and the bodily functions most impacted by their alcohol abuse.
What’s known is that symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy can affect various systems throughout the body. For instance, this condition can disrupt the body’s ability to sense temperature changes, making a person more likely to suffer heat stroke or burns.
Common alcoholic neuropathy symptoms include:
- muscle weakness, cramps, or spasms
- numbness in the arms or legs
- nausea and vomiting
- difficulty swallowing or talking
- bladder problems
- pain in the arms or legs
- unsteadiness while walking
- heat intolerance
- constipation or diarrhea
- sensitivity to touch
Symptoms of alcohol-related nerve damage develop gradually over time, and can become worse without treatment. Until symptoms become serious, many people may ignore or neglect their neuropathy.
This condition can be identified through blood tests, which can detect levels of essential nutrients in the body. If you or your loved one’s nutrient levels are very low, this may predict or otherwise explain why you are experiencing these symptoms. Additional testing of the kidneys, liver, upper gastrointestinal (GI) tract, and the nerves directly can also identify nerve problems.
However, it is not simply a lack of nutrition that causes nerve damage. The alcohol abuse itself is the most significant player in alcoholic polyneuropathy.
Alcohol can have toxic effects on the body, especially in excessive amounts and over a long period of time. Treating alcohol-related nerve damage, therefore, must begin with treating a person’s alcoholism.
Risk Factors For Alcoholic Neuropathy
Not every person with a current or past history of alcohol abuse develops serious nerve damage as a result of their drinking. There are certain factors some people may possess or be at risk for that can make them more likely to develop alcohol-related neuropathy.
These factors can be medical, biological, and genetic.
The biggest risk factors for alcoholic neuropathy include:
- chronic alcohol abuse
- very heavy drinking
- poor nutrition
- thiamine deficiency
- family history of alcoholism
Alcohol abuse leaves no one immune to nerve damage and other health-related issues. If you or someone you know struggles with alcohol abuse and addiction, the best way to prevent neuropathy is to seek professional treatment.
Treatment For Alcoholic Neuropathy
The most effective way to treat alcoholic polyneuropathy is to seek professional help from a medical doctor. Treating alcoholic polyneuropathy must begin with treating a person’s alcohol abuse. If a person is still drinking, the first recommended course of treatment is to enter a medical detox program, followed by an intensive inpatient rehab program.
Overcoming alcohol abuse may not reverse the damage that has been done, but it can prevent nerve damage and other health issues from getting worse. Getting help as quickly as possible can also reduce the alcoholic neuropathy recovery time, which can vary based on the extent of a person’s nerve damage and other factors.
Once a person has stopped drinking, they can receive continued care for their nerve damage in addition to treatment for alcohol addiction.
Treatment recommendations for alcoholic polyneuropathy include:
- medications for uncomfortable symptoms
- vitamins and supplements
- physical therapy
- support groups
- lifestyle and diet changes
Each case of alcoholic neuropathy is different and may require targeted treatments based on the patient’s medical needs.
The medical complications of alcohol abuse can be stressful to manage alone. For more information about alcohol abuse and alcohol treatment options, contact one of our treatment specialists today.