Navigate Up

Women's Center - A-Z Index

#
Y

Print This Page

Alcoholic neuropathy

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

Alternative Names

Neuropathy - alcoholic; Alcoholic polyneuropathy

Causes

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.

Risks of 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:

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.

Exams and Tests

Your health care provider will perform a physical exam and ask 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 ordered to check for a deficiency (lack of):

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

Treatment

Once the 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 make sure muscle function and limb position are maintained.

Medicines may be needed to treat pain or uncomfortable sensations. Because persons with alcoholic neuropathy have alcohol dependence problems, they are advised to take the least amount of medicine needed to reduce symptoms to 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 reduce pain for some people.

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

Bladder problems may be treated with:

  • Manual expression of urine
  • Intermittent catheterization (male or female )
  • Medicines

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

Alcohol must be stopped to prevent the damage from getting worse. Treatment for alcoholism may include counseling or social support such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), or taking medicines.

Outlook (Prognosis)

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.

Possible Complications

  • Disability
  • Long-term (chronic) discomfort or pain
  • Injury to extremities
  • Falling, especially at night
  • Urinary incontinence or retention

When to Contact a Medical Professional

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

Prevention

The only way to prevent alcoholic neuropathy is not to drink alcohol.

References

Chopra K, Tiwari V.  Alcoholic neuropathy: possible mechanisms and future treatment possibilities. Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2012;73: 348-362.

Katri B, Koontz D. Disorders of the peripheral nerves. In: Daroff RB, Fenichel GM, Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC, eds. Bradley’s Neurology in Clinical Practice. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 76.

Updated: 5/28/2013

Luc Jasmin, MD, PhD, FRCS (C), FACS, Department of Neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles CA; Department of Surgery at Los Robles Hospital, Thousand Oaks CA; Department of Surgery at Ashland Community Hospital, Ashland OR; Department of Surgery at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, Cheyenne WY; Department of Anatomy at UCSF, San Francisco CA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.


©  UPMC | Affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences
Supplemental content provided by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions. All rights reserved.

For help in finding a doctor or health service that suits your needs, call the UPMC Referral Service at 412-647-UPMC (8762) or 1-800-533-UPMC (8762). Select option 1.

UPMC is an equal opportunity employer. UPMC policy prohibits discrimination or harassment on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, age, sex, genetics, sexual orientation, marital status, familial status, disability, veteran status, or any other legally protected group status. Further, UPMC will continue to support and promote equal employment opportunity, human dignity, and racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity. This policy applies to admissions, employment, and access to and treatment in UPMC programs and activities. This commitment is made by UPMC in accordance with federal, state, and/or local laws and regulations.

Medical information made available on UPMC.com is not intended to be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely entirely on this information for your health care needs. Ask your own doctor or health care provider any specific medical questions that you have. Further, UPMC.com is not a tool to be used in the case of an emergency. If an emergency arises, you should seek appropriate emergency medical services.

For UPMC Mercy Patients: As a Catholic hospital, UPMC Mercy abides by the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, as determined by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. As such, UPMC Mercy neither endorses nor provides medical practices and/or procedures that contradict the moral teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

© UPMC
Pittsburgh, PA, USA UPMC.com