Understanding Alcoholic Neuropathy
Tue, April 20, 2021

Understanding Alcoholic Neuropathy

Alcoholism affects people from all walks of life. Most of us tend to think that there’s no harm in consuming alcohol every day if it’s for fun. But, just like what they say, too much of everything is bad. In the US alone, alcoholism is considered the third leading lifestyle-related cause of death, coming after tobacco and unhealthy diets and/or lack of exercise. Before you even indulge yourself in bottles of beer every day, remember that a person who succumbs to excessive alcohol use loses a potential 30 years of life. 

The 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reported that 86.3% of people ages 18 or older reported that they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime; 70% reported that they drank in the past year, and 55.3% percent reported that they drank in the past month. During the same year, it was revealed that 26.45% of people ages 18 or older engaged in binge drinking in the past month and 6.6% reported that they engaged in heavy alcohol use in the past month. Constant heavy drinking, unfortunately, can lead to an alcohol use disorder.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the lead federal agency for research on alcohol that supports and conducts biomedical and behavioral research on the causes, consequences, treatment, and prevention of alcoholism and alcohol-related problems, 14.4 million adults ages 18 and older were diagnosed with alcohol use disorder (AUD), which includes 9.2 million men and 5.3 million women. Fortunately, 7.9% of adults who had AUD in the past year received treatment, including 8% of males and 7.7% of females. 

Aside from that, the 2018 NSDUH revealed that an estimated 401,000 adolescents ages 12–17 had AUD, including 173,000 males and 227,000 females. With these figures, the number of alcohol-related deaths is also high. It was reported that an estimated 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes every year, making alcohol the third leading preventable cause of death in the US. Worldwide, 3.3 million deaths were attributable to alcohol consumption. 

Additionally, the World Health Organization reported that alcohol contributed to more than 200 diseases and injury-related health conditions, most notably DSM–IV alcohol dependence (see sidebar), liver cirrhosis, cancers, and injuries. For people who have alcoholic tendencies that they can’t control, their constant impulses to drink not only risk their physical health but also impact their relationships, academics, jobs, financial status, and more. 

What is Alcoholic Neuropathy?

Aside from constant heavy drinking, the health authorities are also warning us about binge drinking, particularly in teenagers. This is not simply drinking a lot of alcohol in a short amount of time. Binge drinking is the process of deliberately consuming more alcohol than the body can metabolize. The University of Medical Center warned people that this kind of drinking causes the blood alcohol level to rise far above the legal limit of 0.08%. 

When you’re an excessive alcohol drinker and you notice a tingling sensation on your limbs, then you might want to consider how much alcohol you consume. You might be suffering from alcoholic neuropathy, a severe condition caused by excessive alcohol use. People could experience alcoholic neuropathy when alcohol has damaged their peripheral nerves, where they connect the brain and spinal cord to the muscles, limbs, and sensory organs. Peripheral nerves are an integral part of our brain because they control the body and receive sensory information. They also help our bodies manage important sensory and motor functions such as bowel and urinary elimination, walking, sexual arousal, arm and leg movement, and speech. 

Previous studies showed that about 65% of people in the US who have been diagnosed with alcohol use disorder also have alcoholic neuropathy. Alcoholic neuropathy is different for many people. Some heavy alcohol users experience a faster onset and progression of alcoholic neuropathy compared to others, while some take years for the disorder to develop. However, it is still not clear why some are more prone to this complication than others.

According to Very Well Mind, a trusted and compassionate online resource that provides guidance in mental health, the disorder is caused by nutritional deficiency related to long-term heavy alcohol consumption and the build-up of toxins in the body as a result. Since alcohol can damage nerves, it can also impede the processing, transportation, and absorption of essential nutrients. When this happens, our bodies would have a lack of proper nutrients to feed us. 

At the same time, alcohol alters the function of the stomach, liver, and kidneys in ways, preventing our bodies from properly detoxifying waste material. There are several symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy, which can affect both movement and sensation. According to Healthline, an online site that covers all facets of physical and mental health openly and objectively, this includes numbness, tingling and burning, prickly sensations, muscle spasms and cramps, loss of muscle functioning, and movement disorders. 

Aside from that, people suffering from alcoholic neuropathy can experience constipation, diarrhea, incontinence, and urinary retention. It can also impact other areas of the body, resulting in difficulty swallowing, abdominal bloating, dizziness or fainting, impaired speech, sexual dysfunction, temperature sensitivity, and vomiting or nausea. 

Diagnosing and Treating Alcoholic Neuropathy

When you have already experienced most of the said symptoms, it’s important to consult a medical professional immediately. Your doctor needs to diagnose your symptoms, thus, it’s essential to share any history of alcohol use to get an accurate diagnosis. Tests may include a nerve biopsy, nerve conduction tests, upper GI and small bowel series, neurological examination, electromyography, esophagogastroduodenoscopy, and more. 

If you are diagnosed, your doctor will recommend several medical treatments that can be used to manage the pain of alcoholic neuropathy. According to Medical News Today, one of the fastest-growing health information sites in the US, the most important thing to do is to stop or significantly reduce your alcohol intake. There are different treatment plans that a doctor might recommend to you. For instance, you might need to take vitamin supplements such as vitamins E, B6, and B12; over-the-counter pain relief; prescription pain relief; physical therapy; orthopedic appliances to aid with mobility, and other safety measures. 

While drinking alcohol with friends is a great experience, we should always consider the limit of our bodies. In this way, we can prevent ourselves from suffering from extreme disorders such as alcoholic neuropathy.