Long-term alcohol use can alter your life in many ways. One lesser-known consequence of alcohol abuse is a condition called peripheral (or alcoholic) neuropathy. In this article, we’ll examine peripheral neuropathy and alcohol, as well as alcohol’s long-term effects on the body.
A Little Background
Peripheral neuropathy can result from a variety of reasons, but it always stems from damage to the nerves around the brain and spinal cord. This damage stops your “peripheral” nerves from sending the right signals through the body. In turn, symptoms ranging from tingling and numbness to speech impairment can abound.
While peripheral neuropathy can develop due to diabetes or exposure to dangerous toxins, it most often results from alcohol abuse. When your peripheral nerves are injured by alcohol, you may suffer from alcoholic neuropathy, a fairly serious issue caused by alcohol consumption.
How Does Alcohol Use Cause Peripheral Neuropathy?
Despite alcohol’s popularity, long-term use can cause permanent damage to the peripheral nerves. When you repeatedly abuse alcohol, it can change the levels of vitamin B6, vitamin B12, thiamine, folate, and other vitamins, creating nutritional and vitamin deficiencies and damaging your nerves.
Because your peripheral nerves need these vitamins to work, an imbalance can stop them from sending signals from one part of your body to another. People with alcoholic neuropathy may notice a mild pain or tingling feeling in their arms or legs at first. However, symptoms can get more severe with continued alcohol abuse and/or without treatment.
Signs and Symptoms of Peripheral Neuropathy
Because the peripheral nerves control a wide variety of bodily functions, symptoms can vary from person to person. Milder symptoms may include:
- loss of feeling in the hands or feet
- a tingling feeling like “pins and needles”
- muscle spasms
- muscle weakness
- loss of balance
Unfortunately, many people living with peripheral neuropathy experience more severe symptoms. These can develop after long-term alcohol abuse. It’s worth noting that very few people experience all of these issues. The major symptoms include:
- inability to start urination
- sexual dysfunction
- speech impairment
- vomiting and nausea
You should also note that many people with peripheral neuropathy have problems beyond the symptoms of nerve damage. For example, losing feeling in your arms and legs can cause you to bump into objects more often. Because you don’t feel discomfort in those affected limbs, your brain doesn’t register pain when you run into obstacles, resulting in repeated injuries.
Similar problems include:
- Risk of Infection: Not feeling pain in your limbs may make you less likely to take care of sensitive wounds. This may cause additional bleeding or, in severe cases, infection.
- Falls: When peripheral nerve damage causes loss of sensation in your feet, you are less able to naturally balance yourself when you walk. If this happens, you may feel dizzy or unbalanced while standing, which can cause dangerous falls when completing daily tasks such as running errands or showering.
Since these symptoms can impact your daily life, you should seek a diagnosis as soon as possible to start treatment. If you experience any of the above symptoms and/or have a history of alcohol abuse, contact your doctor for an examination.
Getting a Diagnosis
For an accurate diagnosis, set up an exam with your doctor to review both your symptoms and history of alcohol use. Be honest with your doctor about your drinking history. Doing so is important to getting the right diagnosis.
After you and your doctor have discussed your history and symptoms, they may choose to run some tests. The most common tests include:
- kidney, thyroid, and liver function tests
- imagining tests like CT or MRI scans
- blood tests to detect vitamin deficiencies from alcohol abuse
- nerve function tests
- nerve biopsy
The end goal is to figure out what exactly is causing your issues. Once you have been diagnosed, you can start looking at your treatment options.
There is no “cure” for peripheral neuropathy, but treatment can ease some of the symptoms and prevent further damage to your sensitive nerve tissue.
How to Treat Peripheral Neuropathy
First, the biggest step in treating peripheral neuropathy is to stop drinking alcohol as soon as possible. Alcohol abuse will only further hurt your nerve tissue, making symptoms that much harder to treat. If you need help to stop drinking, inpatient rehab may be part of your treatment for peripheral neuropathy.
After you have stopped drinking alcohol, your doctor will be able to treat the neuropathy. Sadly, nerve damage is permanent. However, you and your doctor can find ways to treat your symptoms to help you maintain or return to your normal life. Your treatment options may include:
- vitamin supplements to fix your nutritional deficiency
- pain relievers
- physical therapy to help your muscles heal
- medicines to help control urinary issues
On top of these medical treatments, your doctor might refer you to a dietician who can help you find a diet that fits your lifestyle and gives you the vitamins that your damaged peripheral nerves need. There may never be a time when your body is 100% “healed” from alcoholic neuropathy, but don’t let that discourage you from getting the treatment that you need.
Living With Alcoholic Neuropathy
Left untreated, alcoholic neuropathy can seriously damage your nerve tissue and cause chronic pain and loss of bodily functions. However, recognizing symptoms early and getting immediate treatment can help you maintain a high quality of life.
Your recovery will depend on how much alcohol your nerve tissue was exposed to as well as how long you drank alcohol. But, by avoiding alcohol in the future and getting treatment as soon as possible, people with neuropathy can make partial or full recoveries.
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