One of the most serious—but rarely discussed—conditions resulting from extended alcoholism is alcoholic neuropathy. One of the reasons for its being relatively obscure, aside from difficulties inherent in any discussion of substance abuse, is that much of the scientific evidence linking neuropathy and alcoholism is somewhat vague. Even so, medical science generally accepts that excessive use of alcohol can cause neuropathy.
Alcoholic neuropathy has symptoms similar to other forms of neuropathy, with tingling and numbness in the extremities, loss of heat and cold sensation, loss of fine motor control, impotence in men, and so on. All this is accompanied by the chronic pain typical in cases of peripheral neuropathy. Because of the areas of the mind and body targeted by the alcohol, it is common for alcoholic neuropathy sufferers to exhibit outward signs of intoxication even when sober, such as slurred speech, stumbling gait, and clumsiness. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition says that, in severely affected patients, the legs and hands may be nearly useless to the point of paralysis and sensation may be entirely absent in extremities. In these cases, the skin can also be dry and atrophic.
The specific causes of alcoholic neuropathy are difficult to pin down, and thus, the case can be tricky to diagnose. If you frequently drink alcohol, let your doctor know! Generally, a pattern of heavy alcohol use for a period of ten years or more will be accompanied by neuropathy symptoms. A leading theory contends that the cause of alcohol-related neuropathy may be the combined effect of direct nerve-poisoning by the alcohol itself, coupled with the long-term poor nutrition that often accompanies alcohol abuse. Alcoholics typically exhibit erratic eating habits, resulting in poor overall nutrient intake, and the damage to organs reduces the absorption of nutrients from food. Of course, difficulty in motor control resultant from neuropathy often exacerbates the malnutrition, as the patient becomes socially uneasy about mealtimes and self-conscious about feeding themselves.
Nerve damage from alcoholism is usually permanent. If you believe you suffer from alcoholic neuropathy, the first order of business, of course, is to bring your drinking and nutrition problems under control! If your alcohol consumption is not severely limited and adequate nourishment is not supplied, additional treatments will be futile and your symptoms will almost invariably compound. Beyond this, treatment will seek three main goals:
• To control symptoms
• To maximize and restore function (quality of life)
• To prevent further injury to the patient due to neuropathic vulnerabilities
Most treatments address these three tenets simultaneously. Pharmaceutical treatments include the use of painkillers, either prescription strength or over-the-counter (such as analgesics). Your doctor will probably recommend the lightest use of pain medication possible; this is very important if you, as an alcoholic, have a propensity for substance abuse. During a period of withdrawal, you are especially vulnerable to new addiction. Be aware of this danger, and monitor use of any medications very carefully.
Because of the underlying nutritional deficit usually at the root of alcoholic neuropathy, you may benefit from a system of nutritional supplements and parenteral multivitamins. Consult a dietician or your NeuropathyDR® clinician to ensure the proper replenishment of nutrients necessary to prevent the spread of neuropathic symptoms.
Several new lifestyle habits can help you adjust to living with alcoholic neuropathy, such as carefully monitoring the temperature of bathwater to prevent burning, inspecting yourself and your clothing and footwear for points of rubbing or wear on your skin, and so forth. Establishing these habits (which are themselves advisable for all neuropathy patients) can be instrumental in replacing the drinking routine that caused the problem. Living with neuropathy can actually help you break the cycle!
Although nerve damage is usually permanent, your prognosis for sufferers of alcohol-related neuropathy can be very good if you are able to replenish your nutrition and stop drinking. You probably won’t see substantial recovery from neuropathic symptoms for several months. Of course, you’ll see subjective improvements in lifestyle and health almost immediately when you quit drinking, as a result of general detoxification.
If you believe you might be suffering from alcoholic neuropathy, it is vital to your quality of life that you find help! Contact us right away—your NeuropathyDR® clinician is ready to give expert, judgment-free guidance to help you adjust your lifestyle and stop symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy in their tracks.
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