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A Guide to Alcoholic Neuropathy

Posted on April 22, 2020

A Guide to Alcoholic Neuropathy

Alcoholic neuropathy is a neural disorder that’s caused by excessive alcohol drinking. Alcohol is a toxin, and if one drinks excessively, it can have adverse effects on the body. The main way alcohol can impact the body is by suppressing the nervous system.

This is called alcoholic neuropathy – a disorder where alcohol the nervous system is so disrupted by alcohol’s toxins, the body cannot function normally.

The nerves in the body of those who have abused alcohol for prolonged periods of time can be damaged or compromised for good. If only one nerve is affected, we call it mononeuropathy. If several nerves are affected, we call it polyneuropathy.

Neuropathy causes the sufferer to have impaired movement and numb limbs. It also causes individuals to lose sensitivity to pain or heat, and they might feel a tingling in their limbs or weakness in their muscles.

In severe cases, it can lead to organ, skin, and limb dysfunctions. This disorder manifests itself in many different ways, and it can impair an individual’s ability to live normally.

The damage to nerves can be significant and in more severe cases, irreversible. Normally, the first step to treatment is to stop the alcohol intake completely. But even long after the person stops drinking, nerve damage may still be present.

How Does Alcohol Affect the Body?

Alcohol is a toxin and it can have mild to severe effects on our body, depending on the severity of abuse. In mild cases, alcohol can cause lower inhibitions, concentration troubles, loss of coordination, reduce core body temperature, cause vomiting, and even causing sufferers to pass out.

In the long-term, more severe consequences include

  • Memory loss
  • Shorter attention span
  • Learning difficulties
  • Liver problems
  • Organ failures
  • Cancer
  • Nerve damage

Alcohol abuse over a period of many years can increase the probability of an individual developing alcoholic neuropathy. While some alcoholics do not develop this condition at all, others are severely impacted by its effects.

It is unclear why some are more prone to this condition. What is clear is that heavy alcohol use can speed up the onset of alcoholic neuropathy.

The most likely cause of alcoholic neuropathy is the nutritional deficiency that’s caused by heavy alcohol drinking. Those who abuse alcohol usually have poor diets, but this is made even worse by the fact that alcohol decreases the absorption of some crucial nutrients.

Several body parts, including the nerves, get impacted by the lack of proteins and vitamin B12 especially. If the neuropathy persists, it might be irreversible.

Four Main Categories of Nerve Damage

Alcoholic neuropathy manifests itself in four different ways: loss of sensation, pain and hypersensitivity, weakened muscles, and autonomic neuropathy.

Nerve damage from this condition is usually permanent. Your symptoms are likely to get worse if you don’t stop drinking. This could lead to disability, chronic pain, and damage to your arms and legs.

However, if caught early enough, you can minimize the damage from alcoholic neuropathy. Avoiding alcohol and improving your diet can sometimes lead to a moderate to full recovery.

1. Loss of Sensation

Decreased sensation in itself is not a serious problem. But, it can become very serious when the patient doesn’t feel the sensations in their limbs. That’s how various injuries and potentially severe health problems can happen.

The person doesn’t feel pain in their limbs and can get light injuries to their limbs on a daily basis. They can’t feel when they cut themselves, or when their shoes are too tight, for example. This can result in various scrapes and bruises over the limbs where they don’t feel the sensations.

In more severe cases, they can cut themselves or endure more severe injuries. As they don’t feel the pain, they also don’t feel the need to protect their wounds. And these can get infected and can cause serious problems.

Walking or using hands can become a problem. Something that we think of like an every day, straightforward activity, becomes a struggle and a problem. Loss of balance is also a severe problem, as the person can fall and injure themselves seriously.

2. Constant Pain and Hypersensitivity

On the other end of the spectrum, alcohol neuropathy can cause constant pain in limbs where the nerve is affected. The nerve might get damaged and even the lightest of touches can cause a tremendous amount of pain. Additionally, constant pain will be present, but it can feel differently.

For some, it’s as if their hand is burning. Or, there might be a sharp pain present. The pain comes and goes, and varies in severity.

3. Weak Muscles

Nerve damage caused by alcoholic neuropathy causes the muscles to not receive the signals from nerves properly. This causes the muscles to become weakened and unable to function properly.

4. Autonomic Neuropathy

Autonomic nerves control the functions of organs such as bladder, or intestines. The result of this type of neuropathy might be problems with bladder and bowel functions, and sexual dysfunction.

How Fast Does it Progress?

Neuropathy can progress significantly faster if alcohol abuse is more severe. Alcohol has toxic compounds and chemicals that disturb one’s metabolism, and affect a person’s nervous system. But neuropathy and alcohol also share another correlation. Namely, it’s the supplement deficiency that’s causing the problem.

Thiamine deficiency is one of the biggest problems associated with neuropathy. The longer the body is malnourished and kept away from crucial nutrients such as thiamine, the faster neuropathy can progress.

Usually, it takes years and years of heavy drinking for alcoholic neuropathy to start. Gradually, as the body gets left without these nutrients, its functions deteriorate, and the nerves might get damaged as a result.

About 66% of all neuropathy patients are defined as chronic alcoholics. [1]

What are the Signs & Symptoms of Alcoholic Neuropathy?

The symptoms can vary in severity, and where they manifest themselves.

1. Symptoms in Arms and Legs

  • Constant pain
  • Numbness
  • Prickly sensations, tingling
  • Muscle cramps, spasms
  • Atrophy
  • Loss of function
  • Inability to move

2. Urinary and Bowel Symptoms

  • Constipation
  • Incontinence
  • Diarrhoea
  • Problems with urination
  • Sexual disorders
  • Impotence

3. Other

  • Speech impairment
  • Swallowing problems
  • Intolerance to heat
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness

Diagnosing Alcoholic Neuropathy

The diagnosis of the disorder can be tricky at times. Neuropathy has several different possible sources and alcohol is one of them. When the doctor assesses the patient, they will have to be very honest and open about their alcohol intake. This can help the doctor establish the diagnosis. Other tests also need to be conducted to diagnose it. [2]

A blood chemistry test will give the doctor a better idea about the patient’s overall health. With complete blood count (CBC), the doctor tries to establish how much the oxygen travels through the body.

Other tests that are used for diagnosis include Esophagogastroduodenoscopy, electromyography, nerve biopsy, nerve conduction test, neurological examination, and bowel series and tests.

Further kidney and liver tests are also warranted.

What are the Risk Factors?

Neuropathy is not necessarily a result of heavy drinking, but it is one of the biggest factors. These risk factors include:

  • Chronic alcohol abuse and heavy drinking
  • Poor nutrition, lack of nutrients
  • Thiamine deficiency
  • History of alcoholism in the family

Is Alcoholic Neuropathy Curable?

Alcoholic neuropathy is a serious disorder that is difficult to completely reverse or cure. If the disorder is caught in the very early stages and if action is taken quickly, then reversal is still possible. But in most cases, the disorder can be managed with medications to decrease the symptoms as much as possible.

First, alcohol consumption has to stop. But that in itself doesn’t guarantee alcoholic neuropathy will go away. The longer the alcohol abuse has been going on, the more damage it has inflicted on the nerves.

Medications can help, but they are mostly used to manage the disorder. Nutritional supplements are crucial during recovery, as the body of the patient was deprived of them for too long.

Hospitalisation is certainly an option; in some cases, it’s a must. But this condition is hard to manage, especially if the patient still drinks heavily. It often requires a watchful professional eye.

The Importance of Diet for Neuropathy Patients

Reversing the condition includes having a good, healthy diet full of supplements and nutrients to replace the lost nutrients over the years. It is recommended to eat foods that are high in nutritional value, and not too heavy on the body’s metabolism.

Good foods include:

  • Lean protein such as chicken, eggs, fish, lean red meat, liver, low-fat milk, shrimp, yogurt.
  • Vegetables like artichoke, beans, kale, lettuce, asparagus, green peas, tomatoes
  • Fruits such as bell peppers, blackberries, oranges, pears, watermelon
  • Other: almonds, flax seeds, ginger, green tea, legumes, oats, peanuts, popcorn, pumpkin seeds, soybeans, sunflower

Bad foods for neuropathy:

  • Animal-derived foods like butter, cheese, cream, milk, jellies
  • Plant-derived foods such as refined bread, bread rolls, white rice, bread, pasta
  • Fried, deep-fried, processed foods, salt, salsa, hot sauces

What Counts as Heavy Drinking?

There is a big difference between moderate and heavy, binge drinking. Defining yourself into one of these two conditions can help you determine whether alcohol is the reason for neuropathy.

Moderate drinkers are people who drink two or fewer drinks per day, and can easily control their alcohol intake. This limit can vary, but the most important idea is that a moderate drinker knows when to stop, and when it is too much. [3]

A heavy drinker, on the other hand, cannot control their alcohol intake. Alcohol abuse becomes a problem, and it starts to affect a person’s body and mind. These drinkers also drink too much at one go, leading to vomiting, and passing out. This person is unable to control their alcohol intake, and they are dependent or are becoming dependent on alcohol.

Preventing Alcohol Neuropathy

Prevention is key, and time is ticking, so the longer the alcohol abuse goes on, the faster it can cause neuropathy.

Below we have listed the most common and effective ways to minimize the risk of developing alcoholic neuropathy:

  • Stopping alcohol intake immediately and completely
  • Seeking professional help
  • Eating a balanced and healthy diet full of supplements and nutrients
  • Taking vitamin supplements

Conditions Mimicking Alcohol Neuropathy

Although neuropathy is most commonly associated with alcohol abuse or dependence, there are many more conditions that share its symptoms.

Conditions not to be confused with alcoholic neuropathy include:

  • Diabetic neuropathy
  • Peripheral vascular disease
  • Spine disease
  • Muscle disease
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Guillan-Barre syndrome
  • ALS

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed at the beginning of this article, it is vital you seek medical diagnosis before coming to any conclusions or treatment plans.


Treatment of alcohol neuropathy is usually a complex procedure, especially if it involves alcohol addiction. The first step is stopping the addiction and alcohol detox with medications. After that, the patient has to go through several therapies and take medications to combat the disorder.

At the same time, a healthy diet with vitamin supplements must be taken. The most vital supplements include vitamins E, B12, and B1.

Note that the disorder might not be completely reversible, so managing the symptoms comes into play. This is done with medications. Physical therapy can be done to improve flexibility and muscle strength.

Improving muscle function is also important. The patient also needs to find a way to manage the loss of sensation and prevent the injuries from it.

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