Medical Spotlight: What Is Alcoholic Neuropathy?

Dr. Bill Releford
April 16, 2022

Alcoholic neuropathy is a common but rarely recognized consequence of heavy drinking. It involves damage to the peripheral nerves due to excessive alcohol drinking. The peripheral nerves connect the brain and spinal cord to the limbs, muscles, and sensory organs. As a result, people with a history of alcohol abuse may experience pain, tingling, loss of balance, and numbness. But how can alcoholic neuropathy be diagnosed, and what can be done to prevent permanent nerve damage?

Causes of Alcoholic Neuropathy

The peripheral nerves manage important motor and sensory functions such as walking, arm and leg movement, speech, bowel, and urinary elimination. Alcoholic neuropathy is the result of damage to these nerves. In severe cases, autonomic nerves that regulate internal body functions may also be involved.

Even though the exact cause of alcoholic neuropathy is unknown, it’s most likely a combination of the effects of poor nutrition and nerve poisoning. Excessive, long-term consumption of alcohol can lead to nutrition problems, such as protein and vitamin deficiency, causing significant deficits that affect many areas of the body, including the nerves. 

Alcohol also affects the functioning of the liver, stomach, and kidneys, hindering proper detoxification of the body. Toxins then build up and harm many regions of the body, including the nerves.

Almost half of alcoholics develop alcoholic neuropathy. Research shows that about 65% of people diagnosed with alcohol use disorder in the United States also have alcoholic neuropathy. Generally, it takes years for alcoholic neuropathy to develop, so a long-standing history of heavy alcohol use is typical. 

Some patients experience a faster onset and progression of alcoholic neuropathy than others. However, it’s not clear why some people are more prone to this complication than others.

Symptoms of Alcoholic Neuropathy

Alcoholic neuropathy affects both sensation and movement. Symptoms usually develop gradually and worsen over time. Some of the symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy include:

  • Pain and numbness in the limbs
  • Pins and needles sensation
  • Muscle weakness, aches, or cramps
  • Heat intolerance
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Constipation
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Difficulty in urinating
  • Unsteady gait

Diagnosis Of Alcoholic Neuropathy

It’s important to share history of alcohol use with a physician to get an accurate diagnosis. The doctor will perform physical and neurological examinations to test reflexes, sensation, muscle strength, and coordination. Typically, people with alcoholic neuropathy have diminished reflexes and sensations.

Blood chemistry tests may be performed to check for a deficiency of folic acid, vitamins A, B1, B3, B6, and B12. A blood test also indicates a person’s overall health, including sugar levels and liver and kidney function.

Other common diagnostic tests include:

  • Electromyography (EMG): This test examines nerve function in detail. Needles are inserted into areas of the skin and muscles to measure electrical activity. Characteristic patterns such as decreased function in the limbs are suggestive of alcoholic neuropathy.
  • Nerve biopsy: A small sample of a person’s nerve tissue is tested for damage.
  • Nerve conduction test: Involves placing electrodes on the skin, which are used to measure speed and strength of the nerves signals.

Alcoholic Neuropathy Treatment

The most important thing you can do to treat alcoholic neuropathy is to stop drinking. Treatment majorly focuses on the problems with alcohol use and for some patients, this means getting into inpatient rehab. Other may stop drinking with outpatient therapy or social support, such as Alcoholic Anonymous (AA)

Once alcohol use is out of the way, your physician can focus on the neuropathy itself. Nerve damage, if not treated, can make it difficult for one to carry out daily functions. In some cases, it can even cause limb loss. Treatment objectives include controlling the symptoms, preventing injury, and maximizing ability to function independently.

Medicine may be needed to relieve pain. Since most alcoholic neuropathy patients have problems with alcohol use, the doctor prescribes a small dose to avoid drug dependence and other side effects of drug and alcohol misuse.

Since alcoholic neuropathy can cause a vitamin deficiency, it’s vital to supplement the diet with vitamins, including folic acid and thiamine. Fortunately, abstaining from alcohol can help restore your nutritional health. Physical therapy and orthopedic appliances such as splints may help in maintaining muscle and limb function.

How To Prevent Alcoholic Neuropathy

The only sure way to prevent nerve damage from getting worse is to avoid excessive alcohol drinking. If you notice you are developing any signs of alcoholic neuropathy, it is important that you see a doctor. Most importantly, avoid drinking alcohol. However, some cases of nerve damage from alcohol are irreversible.

A non-healing wound is a common complication of alcoholic neuropathy since most patients lose sensation as the condition progresses. This can be prevented or managed by having a thorough foot examination at each clinical visit and taking care of your feet at home. Frequently inspect and guard the extremities to prevent or reduce pressure injuries.

Bottom Line

Nerve damage from alcoholic neuropathy is likely to get worse for malnourished patients and those who continue to abuse alcohol. The aim should be to avoid the onset of this condition and reduce its risk factors. Staying physically active and fit, proper nutrition, and quitting alcohol goes a long way in keeping alcoholic neuropathy at bay. Talk to your healthcare provider if you notice any symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy.