Understanding Alcohol Neuropathy

Understanding Alcohol Neuropathy

If you’ve ever experienced a tingling sensation, numbness, or a burning pain in your hands or feet after a night of heavy drinking, you might be experiencing the early signs of alcohol neuropathy.

This blog explores alcohol neuropathy and the consequences of alcohol abuse, providing an overview of the prevalence of alcohol neuropathy, the reasons why alcohol causes this condition, the signs and symptoms to look out for, ways to manage the condition, and strategies to prevent alcoholic neuropathy.

What is Alcohol Neuropathy?

Alcohol neuropathy is a condition that affects the nerves in your body, and it’s caused by chronic alcohol consumption. It’s a condition associated with alcohol addiction, but actually, alcohol neuropathy can happen to anyone who has engaged in even occasional alcohol abuse over an extended period of time.

When a person engages in excessive alcohol consumption over a long period of time, it can harm your nerves in a couple of ways. Alcohol itself can directly damage the nerves, and it can also interfere with our ability to absorb important nutrients. This means absorbing essential vitamins B1, B6, B12, and folate becomes impossible, which are essential for nerve health. Without these nutrients, the nerves can become weak and damaged.

Alcohol Neuropathy vs. Peripheral Neuropathy

Alcohol neuropathy and peripheral neuropathy are both conditions that affect the nerves in our bodies, but they have different causes and some variations in how they might present.

As discussed above, alcohol neuropathy happens when drinking too much alcohol for a long time damages your nerves. Peripheral neuropathy occurs when the peripheral nerves outside the brain and spinal cord are damaged, and this condition can develop for many reasons, such as diabetes, infections, injuries, some medicines, or diseases. However, the symptoms are the same: pain, tingling, numbness, and muscle weakness, all in the affected areas.

The main difference between alcohol and peripheral neuropathy is the cause. Treating alcohol neuropathy means stopping drinking and other significant lifestyle changes, and treating peripheral neuropathy means fixing the problem that is causing the nerve damage. For example, such as controlling diabetes or changing medicines causing the condition.

How Common is Alcohol Neuropathy?

According to a recent study, 46.3% of people who consistently and heavily drink develop alcohol neuropathy.

Many other research studies into alcoholic neuropathy have had similar findings, with results showing that around half of those who engage in excessive alcohol consumption over the course of their lives will go on to develop this condition.

What are the Symptoms of Alcohol Neuropathy?

There are many signs and symptoms that are associated with alcohol neuropathy. Some of the main indicators include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Numbness and Tingling: You might feel like your hands and feet are falling asleep. This can be a tingling feeling, like pins and needles, or just numbness.
  • Pain: You may feel burning, sharp, or aching pain in your hands, feet, arms, or legs. The pain can be quite mild and not impact your day-to-day life, or it can feel very severe.
  • Weak Muscles: Your muscles might feel weak, making it hard to lift things or walk.
  • Balance Problems: Because your feet might be numb or painful, it can be hard to keep your balance. You might feel unsteady when walking or doing anything that requires your hands, such as writing, typing or cooking.
  • Digestive Problems: Alcohol neuropathy can also affect the nerves that help with digestion. This can make some people feel sick, have heartburn, or have trouble with bowel movements.
  • Sensitivity to Touch: Sometimes, even a light touch can cause pain, or you might feel more pain than normal from things that usually don’t hurt.
  • Difficulty Moving: Your movements might become clumsy or slower than usual because the nerves that control your muscles aren’t working properly.
  • Urinary Problems: You might have trouble controlling your bladder. This can lead to frequent urination or finding it difficult to urinate.
  • Blood Pressure Changes: Nerve damage can affect how your body controls blood pressure, making you feel dizzy or lightheaded.

Why Does Alcohol Cause Neuropathy?

Alcohol can cause neuropathy because it is toxic to nerve cells.

When someone drinks a lot of alcohol over a long period, the alcohol can damage the nerves directly. It also affects the body’s ability to absorb important nutrients, which our bodies need for nerve health.

Without these nutrients, nerves can become weak and damaged. This damage can lead to alcohol neuropathy symptoms presenting themselves. So, heavy and long-term drinking harms the nerves both directly and indirectly, leading to alcohol-induced neuropathy.

How is Alcohol Neuropathy Diagnosed, and What Treatment Options Are There?

Diagnosing alcoholic neuropathy involves a few steps to understand the specific symptoms an individual is experiencing, along with their previous medical history.

A doctor will typically start by asking for information on drinking habits and any symptoms you are experiencing, such as numbness, tingling, or pain in your hands and feet. They may also ask about your overall health and any other conditions you have.

Your reflexes, muscle strength, and sensitivity to touch will also be checked over. This helps with forming an understanding of how well your nerves are working.

Sometimes, additional tests are needed to be certain that it’s alcohol neuropathy. These may include:

  • Blood tests: To check for vitamin deficiencies or other conditions that might cause similar symptoms.
  • Nerve conduction studies: To measure how well electrical signals travel through your nerves.
  • Electromyography (EMG): To see how your muscles respond to electrical signals from your nerves.

Treatment for Alcoholic Neuropathy

After a diagnosis is confirmed, the focus shifts to treatment. The main goal is to stop the progression of the damage and manage symptoms. Here are the common approaches:

  • Sobriety: The most important step is to stop drinking alcohol. This will help with preventing any further nerve damage and sometimes improve symptoms.
  • Nutritional support: Eating a balanced diet and taking vitamin supplements, especially B vitamins, can help repair nerve damage and improve your overall health.
  • Pain management: Medications can help manage the pain. These might include pain relievers or medications specifically for nerve pain.
  • Physical therapy: Exercises can help strengthen muscles, improve coordination, and reduce pain.
  • Support groups: If you are in recovery from alcohol addiction, these meetings provide emotional support and help you stay committed to quitting alcohol.

How to Prevent Alcoholic Neuropathy

To prevent alcoholic neuropathy, limiting your alcohol intake as much as possible and, ideally, avoiding it completely is essential.

Maintaining a healthy diet is also incredibly important, so try to eat a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and proteins to support nerve health. Exercise is another important factor, as physical activity improves blood flow and nerve health. Even if it’s light walking, try to exercise for at least 30 minutes each day. Consider taking vitamins, especially vitamin B1 (thiamine) and other B vitamins, because alcohol can deplete these from your body. Avoid smoking, as it can also harm your nerves, and keep in touch with your doctor to discuss any changes you might be experiencing.

If you find it difficult to reduce your alcohol consumption, seek support from our team today, who will be able to support you through a treatment plan.