It’s no secret that once alcohol sinks its claws, it can take an awful lot from us. It strains relationships, sparks little fires that eventually burn bridges, and takes an incredible toll on our mental health, but many don’t realize the extent of the physical damage that can occur in the throes of alcohol use disorder. What does alcoholic neuropathy feel like?
Alcoholic neuropathy is just one of the potential conditions caused by excessive, long-standing alcohol consumption, and it can be utterly debilitating. The earlier it’s caught, the higher the chances of recovery, which is why, whether you’re worried about yourself or a loved one, it’s critical to understand what alcoholic neuropathy is and what it feels like.
What Is Alcoholic Neuropathy?
Peripheral neuropathy is a condition in which the peripheral nerves that transmit signals between the brain, spinal cord, and body, become damaged, leading to a variety of worrying symptoms pertaining to one or more of the following nerve types:
- Sensory Nerves — Responsible for the communication of sensation to the brain, such as touch and pain
- Motor Nerves — Responsible for muscle articulation
- Autonomic Nerves — Responsible for regulating involuntary mechanisms in the body, such as blood pressure and bladder functionality
Alcoholic neuropathy is simply peripheral neuropathy triggered by the excessive consumption of alcohol over extended periods of time.
According to the National Center for Biotechnology and Information (NCBI), it’s estimated that between 25 and 66% of Americans suffering from alcohol dependency develop some form of neuropathy in their lifetime. Peripheral neuropathy is split into three primary sub types in relation to the class of nerves affected:
- Sensory Neuropathy
- Motor Neuropathy
- Autonomic Neuropathy
In many cases, someone may suffer from combinations of these discrete forms of neuropathy. For example, it’s possible to develop what’s known as sensorimotor polyneuropathy, which is an amalgamation of sensory and motor neuropathy. What does alcoholic neuropathy feel like?
Symptoms: What Does Alcoholic Neuropathy Feel Like?
The symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy are insidious, proceeding so gradually that they often go unnoticed for a long time, and once noticed, the connection to alcohol abuse isn’t always immediately apparent. Eventually, if left untreated, alcoholic neuropathy can cause permanent pain.
Let’s address the different forms of alcoholic neuropathy individually and how they affect the human body.
Common symptoms of sensory neuropathy include:
- Sudden pins and needles in an affected area
- Numbness and a diminished capacity to feel temperature or pain in extremities (this symptom is particularly prevalent in feet)
- Sudden sharp or burning pains (again, typically felt in but not exclusive to the feet)
- Allodynia, or, in other words, intense pain felt from very light contact
- Loss of balance due to a reduced awareness of the position of hands and/or feet
Motor neuropathy typically manifests itself in the following ways:
- Muscle cramps and excessive twitching
- Weakness of muscles or, in severe cases, complete muscular paralysis in the affected area of your extremities
- The wasting away of muscles
Alcohol-induced autonomic neuropathy may elicit the following symptoms:
- Diarrhea and constipation (both of which are more common at night)
- Bloating, excessive belching, and nausea
- Profuse sweating or the absence of sweat
- Sexual dysfunction
- Inability to void your bladder
- Diminished capacity to control bowels
How Can Alcohol Cause Or Exacerbate Neuropathy?
While there’s no question that alcohol addiction does cause neuropathy, the precise mechanisms at play during this condition’s development aren’t all that well understood.
According to the paper, Alcoholic Neuropathy: Possible Mechanisms and Future Treatment Possibilities, backed by the US National Library of Medicine, it’s possible that excessive drinking sustained over a lengthy period could cause and worsen neuropathy in a number of ways.
One thought is that alcohol, over the years, activates spinal cord microglia, a unique population of cells that can potentially trigger neuronal deterioration via the release of cytotoxic molecules such as complement proteins and reactive oxygen intermediates.
Another theory is that oxidative stress and increased free radical activity is the primary contributing factor when it comes to alcoholic neuropathy. Free radicals are unstable molecules with versatile structures, allowing them to initiate long-chain chemical reactions with a plethora of other molecules, causing cellular damage in the process.
As established in this report of a study carried out by the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, even “social drinking” can cause a dramatic spike in free radical activity, so there’s no doubt that long-standing alcohol use disorder could cause some severe free radical-related conditions. Some experts believe it has more to do with the alcohol’s activation of mGlue5 receptors, or perhaps its ability to trigger the sympathoadrenal and hypothalami-pituitary-adrenal axis.
Most suggest that alcohol causes and exacerbates neuropathy by lessening our bodies’ ability to absorb nutrients, leading to deficiencies in our extremities, as nerves closer to the heart are always prioritized.The aforementioned consequences of excessive alcohol consumption, combined with the general toxicity of the substance, likely all contribute to the onset and intensification of neuropathy symptoms.
What You Can Do If You’re Affected By Alcoholic Neuropathy
If you’re concerned that you might have developed alcoholic neuropathy, your first port of call should be to contact a doctor and book yourself in for a check-up ASAP.
There are a number of conditions that can mimic the symptoms of neuropathy, including:
- Guillain-Barré syndrome
- Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
- Motor Neuron Disease
- Muscle Disease
- Diabetic Neuropathy
- Spine Disease
- Peripheral Vascular Disease
Once you and your doctor know what you’re up against, treatment can begin in earnest. In the meantime, if at all possible, try to limit your alcohol consumption, and don’t hesitate to contact a recovery center such as AspenRidge or one closer to home to help you through this trying time.
An alcoholic neuropathy diagnosis is typically the product of a multipronged medical analysis. Your medical history will be evaluated, physical examinations will be administered, and you’ll likely have to undergo both blood and nerve tests.
Physical and Neurological Examinations
Those that suffer from alcoholic neuropathy typically exhibit muscular weakness, slower reflexes, and reduced sensation in their extremities, so your doctor will schedule full physical and neurological examinations for starters.
Nerve Tests (Electromyography And Nerve Conduction Studies)
Electromyography (EMG) and nerve conduction studies (NCV) will then be necessary to assess, not the cause of the prospective neuropathy, but the severity of the nerve damage.
In some instances, a doctor may wish to carry out a nerve biopsy, which involves the harvesting of a small fraction of a nerve (usually from the ankle area) for closer examination using high-powered microscopes. This may well reveal damage-patterns consistent with alcoholic neuropathy across the nerves of the affected area.
You may also be asked to take part in urine tests, blood tests, or imaging sessions in order to eliminate other possible causes of neuropathy and associated symptoms.
Thankfully, there are certain aspects of alcoholic neuropathy that can be treated. For instance, painkillers, antidepressants, and anti-seizure medications can be instrumental in terms of pain management, although these aren’t considered scientifically approved treatments. Maintaining a healthy diet supplemented with plenty of B12, vitamin E, folate, and thiamine can help with the deficiency side of things.
Sadly, there are no medical treatments for counteracting muscle waste, the loss of sensation, or issues with balance; however, many see improvements on all three fronts by getting sober.
In severe cases of alcohol addiction, when a liver transplant is necessary, there have been some instances of reduced symptoms, post-op, but not even a transplant can abate the symptoms of late-stage alcoholic neuropathy.
Living With And Overcoming Alcohol Neuropathy
What does alcoholic neuropathy feel like? If you’ve been diagnosed with alcoholic neuropathy, the best thing you can do for yourself is to quit drinking, which we know is easier said than done, but you don’t have to do it alone. Consider joining a support group — there are a number online if your condition prevents you from leaving the house.
Should you have the resources available, you may also want to hire a nurse or professional carer, as they can organize home visits and help you out with a number of tasks, give health advice, and make sure you’re well looked after.
A medical or care worker will also ease the burden of keeping track of your recovery program yourself, preventing accidental lapses in the program.
AspenRidge Can Help You
We know that walking away from alcohol after years of dependency can feel like an impossibility, especially as you may be facing tough and uncertain times with your health, but here at AspenRidge, we can help you kick the habit once and for all. Contact us directly for alcohol recovery assistance at 855-281-5588.
Through our Colorado-based Alcohol Addiction Treatment Program, we provide our clients with a holistic recovery plan that treats both the physical dependencies of alcohol use disorder and any underlying psychological causes, ensuring you can get sober, stay sober, and begin your recovery from alcoholic neuropathy, or, better still, prevent it from developing in the first place.
Together, we can reclaim what alcohol has seized, and set a new course for a brighter, healthier, happier future!