Alcoholic Polyneuropathy: Causes, Symptoms, And Treatment

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D. on

Alcoholic polyneuropathy is a form of neuropathy, or nerve damage that can cause extreme discomfort, numbness, and intense pain. Treatment for alcoholic polyneuropathy is available and may require that the person stop drinking alcohol.

Alcoholic Polyneuropathy: Causes, Symptoms, And Treatment

Long-term alcohol consumption is toxic to many areas of the body, including the nervous system. Drinking heavily is also connected to malnutrition, leading to nutritional deficiency and vitamin deficiencies.

These are all contributing factors to significant nerve damage and alcoholic polyneuropathy, or alcoholic neuropathy.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), it is estimated that about half of those who have heavy alcohol intake will develop alcoholic polyneuropathy at some point in their life.

What Is Alcoholic Polyneuropathy?

Damage to the nerves in the body due to alcohol intake is called alcoholic neuropathy. Alcoholic polyneuropathy is nerve damage to more than one nerve at a time in the body, causing a number of symptoms in different areas of the body.

The basic definition of alcoholic neuropathy is nerve damage that is the result of high alcohol intake over a period of time.

However, alcoholic neuropathy is complicated, and it is believed to be the result of the many ways that heavy alcohol use negatively impacts the body.

Peripheral nerves are everywhere in the body, and communicate with the brain through the spinal cord. These nerves are broken down into two groups: motor nerves that help with movement and sensory nerves that help feel senses around us.

Other nerves help regulate automatic body functions, like breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. These nerves are called autonomic nerves.

Alcoholic polyneuropathy is often referred to as alcoholic neuropathy.

Signs And Symptoms Of Alcoholic Polyneuropathy

Alcoholic polyneuropathy affects the body in many different ways. The symptoms can range from minimal and uncomfortable to painful and debilitating.

Initially, people struggling with alcoholic neuropathy will report feeling pain from stimuli that should not be painful (allodynia) or excessive pain from stimuli that is typically painful (hyperalgesia)

Some additional areas affected and the symptoms they may have include:

  • Extremities (Arms & Legs)
    • tingling feeling “pins & needles”
    • numbness
    • burning
    • muscle spasms
    • muscle weakness
    • cramping muscles
    • coordination issues
    • muscle function loss
    • muscle strength loss
    • falling often
    • movement disorder
    • muscle atrophy
  • Urinary/Bowel
    • constipation
    • diarrhea
    • incontinence
    • issues with starting to urinate
    • difficulty emptying bladder
  • Digestive Issues
    • problems eating
    • issues swallowing
    • nausea
    • vomiting
  • Other Side Effects Of Alcoholic Neuropathy
    • touch sensitivity
    • problems feeling pain
    • unable to register temperature changes
    • skin infections
    • heat intolerance
    • severe sweating
    • sexual dysfunction
    • impotence (in men)

Causes And Risk Factors

There are many speculations surrounding the cause of alcoholic neuropathy, however, the exact cause is not entirely understood.

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Researchers have been exploring the potential causes for alcoholic neuropathy, and have stated the following based on data found in their studies:

  • Neuronal pathways that are involved in withdrawal and anticipatory phases of alcoholism are also the pathways involved in chronic pain.
  • Men with severe alcohol use disorder report high levels of pain at follow-up appointments.
  • Spinal cord microglia seems to be activated after severe alcohol consumption.
  • Vitamin deficiencies may contribute to this condition.
  • The effects of alcohol on molecular structures in the body may play a role.

Overall, research seems to support that alcohol (ethanol) has both direct and indirect toxic effects on the body and nerve function.

Malnutrition is often seen in individuals with alcohol use disorder, which can lead to a number of deficiencies and impairments in the body, such as:

  • demyelination of neuronal fibers, slowing function of sensory and motor neurons
  • cellular metabolism (speed of function) decreases
  • peripheral nervous system disorders
  • vitamin deficiency
    • thiamine (vitamin B1)
    • niacin (B3)
    • vitamin B12, B2, B6,
    • folate (folic acid)
    • biotin
    • vitamin E
    • pantothenic acid

Essentially, the cause of alcoholic neuropathy is heavy alcohol intake. This causes a snowball effect within the body, all the way to the molecular level.

Because alcohol poisons the body in this way, the symptoms that emerge can range from basic discomfort to extreme pain, especially in someone struggling with alcoholic polyneuropathy.

Long-Term Effects Of Alcoholic Neuropathy

Since alcoholic neuropathy is progressive, it will continue to get worse if left untreated. The more severe the nerve damage, the more likely a person is to experience side effects as a result. These could include falling down, being burned, getting cut, or other damage to the skin.

Additionally, if a person does not feel pain, they can leave themselves more open to infection.

Specifically, thiamine deficiency can lead to a number of long-term effects, including:

  • muscle weakness
  • Wernicke’s encephalopathy
  • incontinence
  • heart failure
  • sensory disturbances
  • lactic acidosis

Untreated alcoholic neuropathy continues to worsen over time, and the effects can be permanent.

Diagnosing Alcoholic Neuropathy

While there is not one specific test to diagnose alcoholic neuropathy, there are a number of tests that will help to rule out other potential causes for neuropathy, including:

  • diabetes test
  • heavy metal poison test
  • HIV test
  • syphilis test

Other tests that are used to ‘rule-in’ alcoholic neuropathy may be:

  • chemistry panel
  • blood tests
  • nerve conduction tests
  • needle electromyography

test levels of thiamine, folate, and other key nutrients for the nervous system
When speaking to a medical professional, it is of the utmost importance to disclose all history, including alcohol consumption.

Early detection and treatment are key elements to managing a diagnosis of alcoholic neuropathy.

Ways To Treat Alcoholic Neuropathy

The most important part of treatment for alcoholic neuropathy is to stop drinking alcohol. Treating the malnutrition associated with alcohol use disorder may help treat some of the symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy.

Depending on the severity of the symptoms associated with alcoholic polyneuropathy, physical therapy may also be ordered to help the recovery process.

Getting Help For Alcohol Abuse

Treating the alcohol use disorder in a person who has been diagnosed with alcoholic polyneuropathy is the key to treating this disorder.

If a person does not stop drinking, the issues connected to alcoholic neuropathy will fail to recover and may become permanent.

It may be difficult for you or your loved one to stop drinking, even with a diagnosis of alcoholic neuropathy.

Finding a substance abuse treatment program that can offer rehabilitation for an alcohol use disorder is just as important as finding health care for alcoholic neuropathy.

Our team of professionals is standing by to help you find the right location to provide excellent substance abuse rehabilitation treatment. Reach out to us today.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D. on
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