Can Alcohol Abuse Cause Nerve Damage?

Can Alcohol Abuse Cause Nerve Damage?

It is well established that drinking too much can damage your physical and mental health in all sorts of ways, and a common problem is nerve damage, known as alcohol neuropathy.

Alcohol abuse, in fact, is the biggest risk factor for death, ill-health and disability among 15-49-year-olds in the UK, and the fifth biggest risk factor across all ages. It is a causal factor in dozens of medical conditions, including high blood pressure, cirrhosis of the liver and several types of cancer.

But can alcohol abuse cause nerve damage? We’ll take a look at the facts…


Introduction to Alcohol-Related Nerve Damage

The nervous system is an incredibly important part of the human body. It transmits signals between the brain and the rest of the body and so controls everything from the way we move to the way we perceive the world through senses such as sight, sound and touch. Nerves can carry pain signals and they can also play a major part in involuntary processes such as maintaining a regular heartbeat and regulating the digestive system.

There are two main parts to the nervous system:

  • The central nervous system – this is the brain and spinal cord.
  • The peripheral nervous system – this is the network of nerves branching out of the spinal cord and threading throughout the body.

Excessive alcohol use can cause damage to the nerves of the peripheral nervous system. This is known as alcoholic neuropathy and it is very common in people who misuse alcohol. The precise number of people affected by alcoholic neuropathy is difficult to measure, but some studies have shown that up to two thirds of patients with chronic alcohol use disorder (commonly known as alcoholism) may have some form of the condition.

Nerve damage from alcohol can have a wide range of effects, with some of the most common being unexplained pain and numbness, particularly in the arms and legs, and trouble with the bowels, bladder and digestive system.


How Does Alcohol Affect the Nervous System?

Not all of the mechanisms by which alcohol can cause nerve damage are fully understood. Alcohol is a toxic substance and can cause direct harm to many organs and other parts of the body, including nerves. Some studies have suggested that ethanol (the kind of alcohol used in alcoholic drinks) and the substances produced during its metabolisation can have a direct toxic and neurotoxic effect. There are a number of possible mechanisms that could lead to nerve damage, including the activation of certain cells and receptors in the spinal cord and free radical damage to nerves.

Another issue is that chronic alcohol consumption can block the absorption of essential nutrients and vitamins. People with an alcohol addiction might not eat well anyway and, even when they do, they will not get everything they need.

Deficiency in a vitamin known as thiamine or vitamin B1 is often seen in chronic drinkers. This vitamin plays a vital role in the growth and function of various cells and a deficiency of thiamine in the nervous system can affect the cellular structure and can cause cell membrane damage. Other vitamin deficiencies can also contribute to alcohol-related neuropathy.


Symptoms of Alcohol-Related Nerve Damage

Symptoms of nerve damage can vary from person to person but pain, tingling and numbness, especially in the arms, legs and extremities are common.

Symptoms to look out for include:

  • Pain, numbness or tingling (pins and needles) in the arms or legs
  • Muscle spasms or cramps
  • Muscle weakness – atrophy or ‘wasting’ muscles
  • Loss of muscle control or coordination
  • Unsteadiness when walking
  • Heat intolerance, especially after exercise
  • Sexual dysfunction including erectile problems (impotence)
  • Urination problems including incontinence, trouble peeing, and a feeling of incomplete bladder emptying even after going
  • Constipation or diarrhoea
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Problems swallowing or talking

These symptoms can impact daily living, especially if they become severe. Many of them can also stem from other medical conditions, so it is always advisable to seek medical help if you begin to experience any of these symptoms.


Treatment and Management of Alcohol-Induced Nerve Damage

Treatment for alcohol-related nerve damage focuses first on stopping the alcohol abuse, along with nutritional programmes and other treatments once this is achieved. Many people with nerve damage from alcohol can make a full recovery but only if they stop drinking. Even where long-term or permanent damage has been caused, it can usually be prevented from worsening with abstinence.

Holistic rehabilitation programmes are generally considered to be the most effective way of treating alcoholism, also known as alcohol use disorder. Medically assisted detox can help you to get through the unpleasant cravings and potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms that can accompany the detoxification period. Therapies and other treatments can also help to address the root causes and psychological aspects of alcohol misuse, and to formulate strategies to avoid relapsing.

Beyond dealing with alcohol intake, nutritional programmes and supplements of essential vitamins can help. Physical therapy and occupational therapy can also help a person in recovery to regain movement and perform everyday functions.


Preventing Alcohol-Related Nerve Damage

It is always best to avoid a condition like alcoholic neuropathy rather than trying to repair the damage. This is best done by limiting your alcohol intake and if you struggle to do so, you may have a drinking problem that needs to be addressed.

It is also important to recognise signs and symptoms of potential nerve damage – as listed above – so that you can seek medical advice as early as possible.


Get In Touch Today

Alcohol-related nerve damage can be a very serious issue but it can be slowed, stopped or even reversed if you are able to stop drinking. This can be easier said than done though, especially if you have developed an alcohol dependency. It can be incredibly difficult to tackle alone, but alcohol addiction can be successfully treated with a programme of evidence-based techniques and treatments such as our alcohol rehab.

If you want help to get your drinking under control, get in touch today. We can offer confidential help and advice or help you get the ball rolling if you are ready to start treatment.