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  • Given the widespread consumption of alcohol, it’s easy to forget that ethanol is, in fact, a moderately toxic chemical compound that directly damages the human body as a whole when consumed in excess.

    If this damage eventually impacts the peripheral nerves it may trigger feelings of pain and tingle in an individual’s arms and legs, among other potential symptoms.

    This condition is known as alcoholic neuropathy.

    Prevalence Of Alcoholic Neuropathy

    Experts estimate that between 25% and 66% of chronic alcohol abusers experience some form of neuropathy, with one study placing the figure at 46%. 

    The condition is most common among middle-class, middle-aged, working men. It is much more likely to impact those who drink regularly rather than episodically. 

    What Causes Alcoholic Peripheral Neuropathy?

    The human nervous system is a complex network that extends outwards from the spine to the rest of the body. 

    Peripheral nerves, which transfer signals between the body, spinal cord, and brain, require a variety of vitamins and nutrients to function correctly, including: 

    • vitamin B1 (thiamine)
    • vitamin B3, (niacin)
    • vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)
    • vitamin B12 (cobalamin)
    • folic acid/folate
    • vitamin A
    • vitamin E

    Unfortunately, chronic alcohol misuse, also known as alcohol use disorder (AUD), is known to cause severe nutritional deficiencies due to the following:

    • poor self-care and nutrition among those with substance use disorders
    • alcohol intake irritates the gastrointestinal system, making it more difficult to absorb nutrients
    • alcoholic liver damage and cirrhosis may compromise the liver’s ability to store and process nutrients after they have been absorbed

    When alcohol-induced malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies become too extreme, they can interfere with peripheral nerve function and, along with the persistent direct toxic effect of alcohol in the bloodstream, harm the nerves themselves.

    This ensuing nerve damage then triggers the wide range of symptoms associated with alcoholic neuropathy.

    Alcoholic Neuropathy Vs. Alcoholic Polyneuropathy

    When nerve damage occurs as a result of alcohol abuse, it is known as alcoholic neuropathy.

    When this damage extends to multiple nerves, it is then known as alcoholic polyneuropathy.

    Symptoms Of Alcoholic Neuropathy

    The signs and symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy vary from individual to individual, depending on which nerves are being affected. Both sensation and movement may be impaired, with specific symptoms potentially including:

    • prickly sensations
    • inability to sense temperature changes
    • heat intolerance, especially after exercise
    • muscle weakness, cramps, or spasms
    • muscle atrophy
    • pain, loss of sensation, or tingling in the arms or legs
    • dizziness or unsteadiness, especially when moving
    • nausea
    • difficulty swallowing
    • impaired speaking
    • difficulties with bladder control and sensation
    • constipation or diarrhea
    • incontinence
    • impotence and sexual dysfunction

    Alcoholic neuropathy is not life-threatening. But it is important to note that while for some this condition may be only slightly uncomfortable, for others it can develop into a major disability with a devastating effect on overall quality of life and independence.

    Treating Alcoholic Neuropathy

    As with so many conditions, early detection and treatment is key to limiting the effects of alcoholic neuropathy and preserving as much of an individual’s normal function and sensation as possible.

    Treatment options for alcoholic neuropathy vary from individual to individual, but may include:

    • vitamin supplements
    • prescription pain medications or antidepressants to manage physical discomfort
    • anticonvulsants to treat muscle spasms
    • physical therapy to prevent or reverse muscular atrophy
    • use of orthopedic and safety equipment to stabilize an individual and prevent injury
    • total abstinence from alcohol to prevent further nerve irritation

    Can Alcoholic Neuropathy Be Reversed?

    It depends.

    When excessive drinking damages the peripheral nervous system to the point that it interferes with nerve conduction, the damage is often permanent and irreversible. Many who receive treatment are never able to reverse their symptoms.

    However, many others who make positive lifestyle changes to stop drinking, manage their nutrition, and strengthen their musculature do improve their symptoms or even recover fully. 

    How Can Alcoholic Neuropathy Be Prevented?

    You can avoid alcoholic neuropathy by drinking in moderation or not at all, eating a balanced diet, and taking vitamin supplements if you develop nutritional deficiencies for any reason. 

    Medical Alcohol Detox

    While withdrawing from alcohol after an alcohol use disorder has developed can be extremely uncomfortable, continued alcohol consumption will only continue to damage the nerves and make alcoholic neuropathy worse over time.

    This is why withdrawal should be attempted in a medically supportive environment. Medical detox programs offer support, supervision, and medications (when necessary) to manage alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

    To learn about our substance abuse treatment programs, please connect with us today.

    Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
    ©2023 Ark National Holdings, LLC. | All Rights Reserved.
    This page does not provide medical advice.

    National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NIH) - Peripheral Neuropathy Fact Sheet
    National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus - Alcoholic neuropathy
    StatPearls - Alcoholic Neuropathy

    Medically Reviewed by
    Manish Mishra, MBBS
    on July 3, 2022
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