Neuropathy - alcoholic; Alcoholic polyneuropathy
Alcoholic neuropathy is damage to the nerves that results from excessive drinking of alcohol.
The exact cause of alcoholic neuropathy is unknown. It likely includes both a direct poisoning of the nerve by the alcohol and the effect of poor nutrition associated with alcoholism. Up to half of long-term heavy alcohol users develop this condition.
In severe cases, nerves that regulate internal body functions (autonomic nerves) may be involved.
Symptoms of this condition include any of the following:
Changes in muscle strength or sensation usually occur on both sides of the body and are more common in the legs than in the arms. Symptoms usually develop gradually and become worse over time.
Your health care provider will perform a physical exam and ask about symptoms. An eye exam may show eye problems.
Excessive alcohol use often makes the body unable to use or store certain vitamins and minerals. Blood tests will be ordered to check for a deficiency (lack) of:
Other tests may be ordered to check for other possible causes of neuropathy or damage to body systems due to neuropathy. Tests may include:
Stopping the use of alcohol is the most important first step. People will often need counseling from alcohol use disorder specialists. If there are other medical problems that can also cause nerve damage, such as diabetes, they should be treated as well. Once the alcohol problem has been addressed, treatment goals include:
It is important to supplement the diet with vitamins, including thiamine and folic acid.
Physical therapy and orthopedic appliances (such as splints) may be needed to maintain muscle function and limb position.
Medicines may be needed to treat pain or uncomfortable sensations due to nerve damage. They will be prescribed the smallest dose of medicine needed to reduce symptoms. This may help prevent drug dependence and other side effects of chronic use.
Positioning or the use of a bed frame that keeps the covers off the legs may help reduce pain.
People with lightheadedness or dizziness when standing up (orthostatic hypotension) may need to try several different treatments before finding one that successfully reduces their symptoms. Treatments that may help include:
Bladder problems may be treated with:
Impotence, diarrhea, constipation, or other symptoms are treated when necessary. These symptoms often respond poorly to treatment in people with alcoholic neuropathy.
It is important to protect body parts with reduced sensation from injury. This may include:
Alcohol must be stopped to prevent the damage from getting worse. Treatment for alcoholism may include counseling, social support such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), or medicines.
Damage to nerves from alcoholic neuropathy is usually permanent. It is likely to get worse if the person continues to use alcohol or if nutritional problems are not corrected. Alcoholic neuropathy is usually not life threatening, but it can severely affect quality of life.
Call for an appointment with your provider if you have symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy.
The only way to prevent alcoholic neuropathy is not to drink excessive amounts of alcohol.
Katirji B. Disorders of peripheral nerves. In: Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC, Pomeroy SL, Newman NJ, eds. Bradley's and Daroff's Neurology in Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2022:chap 106.
Koppel BS. Nutritional and alcohol-related neurologic disorders. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 26th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 388.BACK TO TOP
Review Date: 4/29/2023
Reviewed By: Joseph V. Campellone, MD, Department of Neurology, Cooper Medical School of Rowan University, Camden, NJ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David C. Dugdale, MD, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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