Alcoholic Neuropathy: Frequently Asked Questions
More than half of the people who abuse alcohol over a sustained period of time develop a painful condition called alcoholic neuropathy. It often affects the lower extremities but may extend to other parts of the body. Alcoholic neuropathy can lead to permanent disability; however, stopping or reducing how much you drink may help lessen symptoms.
Though neuropathy primarily affects the legs and possibly the arms, if the damage is severe enough it can disrupt bodily functions. Alcohol can damage parts of the nervous system that are involved with eliminating waste, speech, and sexual performance. Common symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy include:
- Pain or burning sensations
- Impotence and incontinence
- Heat intolerance, especially after exercise
Alcohol may be directly toxic to the nerves, but excessive use of alcohol is also associated with malnutrition. Patients who abuse alcohol often have poor dietary habits and their GI tract doesn’t absorb nutrients well. They may be deficient in thiamine, one of the essential eight B vitamins. Thiamine is important in metabolizing carbs and in keeping nerve cells healthy. People who abuse alcohol are often lacking other B vitamins like B12, as well as vitamin E and folate.
In some people, alcoholic neuropathy develops gradually over the years; in others, it may come on quickly. Nerve damage can make it difficult for you to use your arms and legs, so you may not be able to walk or use your arms as well as you used to. If you lose sensation in your limbs due to nerve damage, you may injure yourself and not know it. Neuropathic pain can be debilitating and make it hard to go about your usual activities.
Other symptoms, like gastrointestinal problems and impotence may affect your overall well-being, interpersonal relationships, and intimacy.
The first step in getting alcoholic neuropathy under control is to stop drinking. Ask your doctor or a trusted individual for help if you have difficulty getting your drinking under control—help is available. Your doctor can recommend supplements to help restore lost nutrients or recommend a nutritionist to improve your diet. You can take medication for pain relief and to help control urination. Physical therapy may be part of your treatment plan to help restore your muscle tone and strength. If the nerve damage is permanent, you may need to use adaptive devices, such as a cane.
Symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy may go away if you stop drinking, depending on the severity of the damage. If you abstain from alcohol for a period of months or years, you may reverse some of the effects and regain function. If you continue or resume drinking, you can suffer permanent damage to your nervous system. If alcohol damages your liver badly enough to require a transplant, your symptoms may improve if you get a new liver.
Although alcoholic neuropathy is not known to shorten life expectancy, the pain and weakness can make daily life difficult. Alcohol abuse raises other health risks that can endanger or shorten your life, including liver and heart disease. It can also affect your cognitive ability and raise the risk of mental health issues like depression and dementia. If you cannot control your drinking, find help to stop, so you can avoid the many physical and psychological effects of alcohol abuse.