Alcoholic Neuropathy: How Heavy Drinking Affects the Brain
Last Updated: November 1, 2023
Although it’s unclear exactly what causes alcoholic neuropathy, heavy alcohol use may affect nerves, making them more susceptible to damage.
Heavy drinking affects the brain in many ways, but one of the most common side effects is alcoholic neuropathy. Although alcoholic neuropathy causes uncomfortable symptoms, it’s possible to treat it. Starting recovery can also prevent the condition from getting worse.
What Is Neuropathy?
Neuropathy is a medical condition caused by nerve damage. It may affect the autonomic or somatic nerves or both. Your autonomic nerves control breathing and other processes that happen automatically. Somatic nerves control the functions you have to think about. For example, if you want to pick up a glass of water, you have to think about moving your arm, reaching for the glass and pulling the glass toward your mouth.
How Alcoholism Can Lead To Neuropathy
Excessive alcohol consumption has been linked to several vitamin deficiencies and preventable health conditions. Alcohol also has toxic effects on the nerves, making them more susceptible to damage. In some cases, neuropathy develops due to vitamin toxicity, which is when you take in much more of a vitamin than your body needs.
Symptoms of Alcoholic Neuropathy
Your nerves control many processes, so alcoholic neuropathy causes different symptoms. Burning pain, heat intolerance, numbness in the arms and legs and painful sensations in the limbs are some of the most common. Severe alcoholic neuropathy may also cause symptoms, including:
- Muscle weakness
- Muscle cramps
- Difficulty urinating
- Difficulty swallowing
- Unsteadiness when walking
- Problems talking
The Science Behind Alcoholic Neuropathy
Scientists don’t know exactly what causes alcoholic neuropathy. However, alcohol likely poisons the nerves, causing lasting damage. Poor nutrition may also play a role, as people with substance use disorders may not get enough of the vitamins and minerals the nervous system needs to work properly. For example, the body uses vitamin B6 to make neurotransmitters, the chemicals used to send messages between the nerves and other structures.
How Alcoholic Neuropathy Is Diagnosed
If you have symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy, the first step is to have a thorough physical exam. During this type of exam, a healthcare provider listens to your heart and lungs, checks your reflexes, presses on your abdomen and performs other tasks to assess your health. They also ask questions to determine if you have any risk factors for neuropathy, so it’s best to be honest about your alcohol use.
To help diagnose the cause of your symptoms, our healthcare provider may order blood tests, including:
- Vitamin A
- B vitamins
- Folic acid
- Thyroid function
- Liver function
- Kidney function
- Electrolyte levels
Neuropathy has several potential causes, so your provider may also recommend that you have a nerve biopsy or undergo nerve conduction tests. A doctor removes a small piece of nerve tissue during a nerve biopsy, and then it’s examined under a microscope to determine if it’s damaged. Nerve conduction tests help determine how long an electrical signal takes to move through a nerve.
Other Alcohol-Related Neurological Conditions
Excessive alcohol consumption is just one of several potential causes of neuropathy. If your healthcare provider rules out alcoholic neuropathy, they may assess you for stroke, myopathy, multiple sclerosis or Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
- Stroke: A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is blocked. If a stroke damages the part of the brain responsible for interpreting pain, you may develop neuropathy.
- Myopathy: This condition affects the skeletal muscles. It’s different from neuropathy but causes some of the same symptoms.
- Multiple sclerosis: This causes the immune system to attack the protective covering of the nerve fibers, which may cause neuropathy.
- Wernicke-Korsakoff: Typically, Wernicke-Korsakoff develops due to an alcohol use disorder, poor nutrition and a severe vitamin B1 deficiency.
Treatment and Management of Alcoholic Neuropathy
The first step in treating alcoholic neuropathy is to stop consuming alcohol. Your healthcare provider may also prescribe medications to control your symptoms or advise you to take supplements to counteract any nutrient deficiencies. If your alcoholic neuropathy causes you to feel lightheaded, it may be helpful to sleep with your head elevated, wear compression stockings or add more salt to your food.
Long-Term Prognosis and Possible Complications
Once nerve damage occurs, it’s usually permanent. Untreated alcoholic neuropathy may make it difficult to control your bowel or bladder function, have an erection or walk without feeling unsteady. However, it’s possible to prevent additional damage if you get treatment for your substance use disorder and improve your nutrition. Many people benefit from a period of medical detox followed by residential rehab. Once you’re in recovery, you can also attend support group meetings and receive professional outpatient care.
How To Prevent Alcoholic Neuropathy
It’s important to drink in moderation to prevent alcoholic neuropathy from happening in the future. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020–2025, moderate drinking is no more than two drinks per day for men and one for women. Maintaining a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products makes it easier to get the vitamins and minerals you need to avoid alcoholic neuropathy and other medical conditions linked to poor nutrition.
Get Help for Alcohol Addiction Before Neuropathy Develops
If you’re struggling with alcohol use, you’re not alone. The Recovery Village Atlanta has experienced treatment professionals available to help you live a healthier life. Contact us today to begin your recovery. We have compassionate Recovery Advocates available to review your health insurance information and help you determine the best way to get treatment.
Waxenbaum, Joshua A; Reddy, Vamsi; Varacallo, Matthew. “Anatomy: Autonomic Nervous System.” National Library of Medicine, July 24, 2022. Accessed July 13, 2023.
Cleveland Clinic. “Somatic Nervous System.” June 15, 2022. Accessed July 13, 2023.
Hoyumpa, A.M. “Mechanisms of vitamin deficiencies in alcoholism.” National Library of Medicine, December 1986. Accessed July 13, 2023.
Mount Sinai. “Alcoholic neuropathy.” June 6, 2023. Accessed July 13, 2023.
MedlinePlus. “Physical examination.” February 2, 2023. Accessed July 13, 2023.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. “What Is a Stroke?” March 24, 2022. Accessed July 13, 2023.
Cedars Sinai. “Myopathy.” Accessed July 13, 2023.
National Multiple Sclerosis Society. “What is MS?” Accessed July 13, 2023.
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.” Accessed July 13, 2023.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Facts about moderate drinking.” Accessed July 13, 2023.