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Alcoholic neuropathy

Definition

Alcoholic neuropathy is damage to the nerves that results from excessive drinking of alcohol.

Alternative Names

Neuropathy - alcoholic; Alcoholic polyneuropathy

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

The cause of alcoholic neuropathy is debated. It probably includes both a direct poisoning of the nerve by the alcohol, and the effect of poor nutrition associated with alcoholism. Up to half of all long-term heavy alcohol users develop this condition.

In severe cases, the nerves that regulate internal body functions (autonomic nerves) may be involved.

Risks for alcoholic neuropathy include:

  • Long-term, heavy alcohol use
  • Alcoholism that is present for 10 years or more

Symptoms

Additional symptoms that may occur with this disease:

Note: 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 slowly become worse over time.

Signs and tests

Your health care provider will perform a physical exam and ask questions about your symptoms. An eye exam may show eye problems.

Alcoholism often makes your body unable to use or store certain vitamins and minerals. Blood tests will be done to check for a deficiency (lack of):

Additional tests may be done to rule out other possible causes of neuropathy. Tests may include:

Treatment

Once the immediate alcohol problem has been addressed, treatment goals include:

  • Controlling symptoms
  • Maximizing ability to function independently
  • Preventing injury

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 maximize muscle function and maintain limb position.

Patients may take medication, if necessary, to treat pain or uncomfortable sensations. The response to medications varies. Patients are advised to take the least amount of medication needed to reduce symptoms, to help prevent drug dependence and other side effects of chronic use.

Common medications may include over-the-counter analgesics such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen to reduce pain. Tricyclic antidepressants or anticonvulsant medications may help stabbing pains.

Positioning, or the use of a bed frame that keeps the covers off the legs, may reduce pain for some people.

Some people may need to treat blood pressure problems, difficulty with urination, and slow gastrointestinal movement.

Light-headedness or dizziness when standing up (orthostatic hypotension) may require several different treatments before you find one that successfully reduces symptoms. Treatments that may help include:

  • Wearing elastic stockings
  • Eating extra salt
  • Sleeping with the head elevated
  • Using medications such as fludrocortisone

Bladder dysfunction may be treated with:

  • Manual expression of urine
  • Intermittent catheterization (male or female)
  • Medications such as bethanechol

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:

  • Checking the temperature of bath water to prevent burns
  • Changing footwear
  • Frequently inspecting the feet and shoes to reduce injury caused by pressure or objects in the shoes
  • Guarding the extremities to prevent injury from pressure

Stop using alcohol to prevent the damage from getting worse. Treatment for alcoholism may include psychiatric therapy social support such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), medications, and behavior modification.

Expectations (prognosis)

Damage to nerves from alcoholic neuropathy is usually permanent and may get worse if you continue to use alcohol or do not correct nutritional problems. Symptoms vary from mild discomfort to severe disability. The disorder is usually not life-threatening, but it may severely affect your quality of life.

Complications

  • Disability
  • Long-term (chronic) discomfort or pain
  • Injury to extremities

Calling your health care provider

Call for an appointment with your health care provider if you have symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy.

Prevention

Avoid or minimize alcohol use.

References

Shy ME. Peripheral neuropathies. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 446.

Harati Y, Bosch EP. Disorders of peripheral nerves. In: Bradley WG, Daroff RB, Fenichel GM, Jankovic J, eds. Bradley: Neurology in Clinical Practice. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Butterworth-Heinemann Elsevier; 2008:chap 80.


Review Date: 4/30/2011
Reviewed By: Kevin Sheth, MD, Department of Neurology, University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine; David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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