Alcoholic Neuropathy: Symptoms and Treatment

alcoholic neuropathy

Alcoholism (chronic alcohol use disorder) is associated with serious accidents, overdose, cancer, heart and liver disease, and weakened immune systems. Regular heavy drinking can also cause less life-threatening problems that run the spectrum from major disability to persistent nuisance. One example is alcoholic neuropathy, a variety of unpleasant symptoms generated by alcohol-induced damage to peripheral nerves. Up to two-thirds of people with chronic alcohol use disorder experience some level of alcoholic neuropathy.

Causes and Symptoms

Alcohol can damage nerves directly, or it can render the body incapable of properly utilizing nutrients such as niacin and vitamin B12, which help regulate nerve function. Depending on the extent of the damage, symptoms may lessen or disappear when a person stops drinking alcohol; however, nerves have less self-healing ability than many other body components, and neuropathy harm is often permanent.

Probably the most common symptom of mild neuropathy is chronic prickling, burning, or numbness in the arms and legs. In more severe cases, muscles will cramp, suffer frequent spasms, or even become too weak to function. People with extreme neuropathy may develop chronic (essential) tremor or other movement disorders.

Alcoholic neuropathy often attacks the autonomic nervous system as well, typically causing irregular urinary and bowel function, frequent nausea, or sexual dysfunction.  Some patients have difficulty speaking or swallowing, or their eye pupils may lose ability to contract and dilate. The unluckiest people develop even worse health problems: blood pressure fluctuations, loss of body-temperature regulation, heart-function disruptions that make exercise difficult or impossible.

Treatment for Alcoholic Neuropathy

The first step in recovering from alcoholic neuropathy is to stop feeding it with more alcohol—and, if literal alcohol addiction is a factor, to get treatment for that early on. (Important note: if there’s any possibility of addiction, it may be extremely dangerous to stop drinking without medical supervision. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can include seizures and heart failure.)

Take the following steps if you suspect you have neuropathy from overconsumption of alcohol.

See a Doctor

Ideally, get evaluated for the life-threatening condition—alcohol addiction—first. If that diagnosis is confirmed, you’ll need supervised detox in a hospital, plus long-term counseling to reinvent your life and avoid relapse. Neuropathy, even if it badly impairs your quality of life, is more symptom than illness, and the time to treat it is after the larger problem is under control.  

Make a Long-Term Sobriety Plan

Even after you’re detoxed and no longer in danger of physical withdrawal symptoms, alcohol addiction is rarely cured simply by resolving to never take another drink: temptations to relapse are an inevitable part of recovery. It’s important to plan in advance how you will avoid “triggers” and how you will respond if they slip in. It’s equally important to build an active network of therapists, recovery peers, and supportive friends who will stand by you and help keep your resolve strong.

Get Treatment for Nerve Damage

Once the worst of the addiction problem is dealt with, have a doctor evaluate you for nerve damage, even if you no longer have neuropathy symptoms. Be prepared for blood tests and other testing that may include biopsy, EMG procedures, and examination of the gastrointestinal tract, kidney, thyroid gland, and/or liver. Talk with your doctor about creating an individualized treatment plan, which may include physical therapy, acupuncture, vitamin supplements, or prescription pain relievers. (Make sure the doctor knows about your addiction history, especially if he or she suggests medication: prescription drugs can be addictive themselves, and any history of substance abuse disorder puts you at higher risk for developing other addictions.) If nerve damage is extensive, you may need orthopedic appliances or other assistive devices.

Take Care of Yourself

Good physical health is important to confidence and resilience, both of which are vital factors in preventing relapse and further health problems. The basic components are diet, sleep, exercise, and time for relaxation and self-pampering. Since your ability to engage in some of these may be affected by neuropathy and/or alcoholism, schedule an appointment with a doctor or therapist to create a detailed, individualized health plan.

Keep a Positive Attitude

Even if you feel miserable all over, hang on to hope and stay grateful for everything you still have. A cheerful attitude is itself a proven treatment for pain and illness of any kind! (If you have real trouble here, get evaluated for clinical depression—and include extra humor and fun in your daily health plan.)

Treatment for Alcoholism in Hemet, California

HVRC’s Drug & Alcohol Addiction Program provides medically supervised detox and rehab for alcoholism and other types of chemical dependency. Patients are encouraged to help develop their individual treatment plans, which include therapy, education, and relapse prevention. Contact us to speak with an admissions counselor.