What Is Alcoholic Neuropathy?

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Alcoholic neuropathy, also known as alcoholic peripheral neuropathy, refers to damage of the nerves due to chronic and excessive alcohol consumption. Affected nerves include the peripheral nerves, primarily located in the arms and legs, and the autonomic nerves, which help regulate our internal body functions. About 46% of chronic alcohol users will eventually develop this condition.

This article reviews alcoholic neuropathy and its symptoms, causes, and treatment.

Close-up two men clinking glasses of whiskey drink alcohol beverage together at counter in the pub
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Alcoholic Neuropathy Causes

The exact cause of alcoholic neuropathy is unclear. However, it is known to be directly related to heavy and long-term alcohol consumption. Overconsumption of alcohol may directly harm and hinder the nerves' ability to communicate information from one body area to another.

Poor nutrition is often associated with heavy alcohol use. Research shows that decreased thiamine (a B vitamin) plays a role, while others suggest an overall nutritional deficiency may play a role. However, alcoholic neuropathy can also occur without the presence of malnutrition.

Alcoholic Neuropathy Symptoms

Symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy are usually related to nerve dysfunction and may include:

  • Numbness of the extremities, most commonly in the legs
  • A tingling or pins-and-needles sensation in the extremities
  • Pain or burning sensation in the arms or legs
  • Difficulty walking
  • Cramps, aches, or weakness of the muscles
  • Difficulty talking or swallowing
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Erection difficulties
  • Difficulty urinating or incontinence
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Heat intolerance

Most symptoms generally begin as mild. However, they usually worsen over time as the neuropathy progresses.

Symptoms that occur in the arms and legs typically affect both sides.

Alcoholic Neuropathy Diagnosis

Since symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy can vary greatly, diagnosis may take time. It usually involves a combination of the following:

  • Medical history: Your healthcare provider will collect data involving past medical history and all current symptoms.
  • Physical exam: This exam aims to uncover other medical conditions contributing to symptoms, like diabetes or high blood pressure.
  • Neurological exam: This is a noninvasive exam to determine the location and extent of neurological damage. Your healthcare provider may ask you to complete a series of small movements and ask several questions to check neurological function.
  • Blood and urine tests: These tests can detect diabetes, liver and kidney problems, infections, vitamin deficiencies, and other conditions that may cause neuropathic conditions.

Chronic alcohol use can also affect how the body stores and uses vitamins that are needed for healthy nerve function. In addition to thiamine, vitamin levels that your healthcare provider may check include:

  • Pyridoxine, or vitamin B6
  • Pantothenic acid
  • Vitamin A
  • Biotin
  • Folic acid
  • Niacin, or vitamin B3

Alcoholic Neuropathy Treatment

Fortunately, after receiving a diagnosis, people with alcoholic neuropathy can make healthy changes to minimize symptoms and receive help for chronic alcohol use.

The first step in treating alcoholic neuropathy includes stopping alcohol use altogether. If your drinking is out of your control, know that many treatment options are available.

Talk to your healthcare provider about what options are best for you. Treatment may include:

  • Therapy
  • Medication
  • Social support from groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
  • In-patient or outpatient rehab

Likely a combination of treatments will be needed.

Other treatment options to manage alcoholic neuropathy involve symptom management and preventing further injuries. These options may include:

  • Adding vitamins and supplements to your diet
  • Physical therapy
  • Orthopedic splints to maintain limb function and positioning
  • Medications to reduce pain and discomfort
  • Wearing compression stockings
  • Keeping your head elevated while sleeping
  • Intermittent catheterization or manual expression of urine for people with difficulty urinating
  • Eating extra salt (only for those without hypertension)

People with any type of neuropathy may have reduced sensitivity in the legs and arms. If this occurs, additional steps need to be taken to prevent other injuries, such as:

  • Ensuring that bath and shower water is not too hot to prevent burns
  • Wearing special footwear to prevent foot injuries
  • Checking feet daily for wounds

Alcoholic Neuropathy Prognosis

This condition is typically not life-threatening, but the nerve damage from alcoholic neuropathy is usually permanent. It will certainly worsen with continued alcohol use.

Summary

Alcoholic neuropathy damages the nerves due to prolonged and excessive alcohol consumption. This damage prevents the nerves from communicating information from one body area to another.

Most symptoms generally start as mild. However, they usually worsen over time as the neuropathy progresses. Some of the most common symptoms are numbness or tingling sensation of the extremities, pain or a burning sensation in the extremities, difficulty walking, difficulty urinating, and difficulty talking or swallowing.

Diagnosis usually involves a healthcare provider collecting a medical history, performing a medical and neurological exam, and performing blood and urine tests. Treatment options include steps to quit alcohol use and managing symptoms of the disease.

A Word From Verywell

Quitting drinking can seem like an overwhelming task. But if you have developed neuropathy as a result of alcohol use, it's important to stop drinking as soon as possible. Treatment can help. Professional and peer help through programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous or other substance abuse programs can help you reduce your alcohol consumption. Talk to your healthcare provider about the best treatment plan to start on your road to recovery.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is alcoholic neuropathy curable?

    There is no cure for alcoholic neuropathy, and the nerve damage is usually permanent. This condition is typically not life-threatening. However, it will worsen with continued alcohol use.

  • How long does it take to develop alcoholic neuropathy?

    How long it takes for alcoholic neuropathy to develop depends on many factors, including the amount of daily alcohol consumed, a person's overall health, their nutritional intake, and other individual factors. But in most cases, alcoholic neuropathy takes several years or even decades to develop, depending on the amount of alcohol consumed.

  • How common is alcoholic neuropathy?

    Alcoholic neuropathy affects people who consume excessive amounts of alcohol over a long period of time. About 46% of all chronic alcohol users may eventually develop this condition.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. MedlinePlus. Alcoholic neuropathy.

  2. Julian T, Glascow N, Syeed R, Zis P. Alcohol-related peripheral neuropathy: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Neurol. 2019;266(12):2907-2919. doi:10.1007/s00415-018-9123-1

  3. Chopra K, Tiwari V. Alcoholic neuropathy: possible mechanisms and future treatment possibilities: clinical management of alcoholic neuropathyBritish Journal of Clinical Pharmacology. 2012;73(3):348-362. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2125.2011.04111.x

  4. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Peripheral neuropathy.

By Sarah Jividen, RN
Sarah Jividen, RN, BSN, is a freelance healthcare journalist and content marketing writer at Health Writing Solutions, LLC. She has over a decade of direct patient care experience working as a registered nurse specializing in neurotrauma, stroke, and the emergency room.