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Alcoholic Neuropathy

Alcoholic Neuropathy

This article provides some information about alcoholic neuropathy, its causes and symptoms, as well as the treatment and prognosis for the same.
Puja Lalwani
As a result of alcoholism, or excessive consumption of alcohol, one may develop a disorder called alcoholic neuropathy. Excessive consumption of alcohol affects the normal functioning of the nerves, and results in damage, over a period of time. This condition is also known as alcoholic polyneuropathy. The cause may appear singular but studies have shown that there may be other causes that contribute to the symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy.
Causes
The primary cause of this condition is alcohol addiction, and prolonged consumption of alcohol over a period of 10 years or more. During or after this time span, one may begin to experience the symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy. Alcohol has been found to have a direct toxic effect on the peripheral nervous system, thereby leading to progressive damage upon consumption. It has been found in several studies, that it is natural for one's appetite to get affected by excessive alcohol consumption.
In such a case, lack of essential nutrients in the body, primarily a deficiency of thiamine, is a reason for the development of alcoholic neuropathy. As such, indirectly, nutritional deficiencies have been found to be the cause of this disorder. Thus, both combined together are the main causes resulting in this condition. In very rare cases, one may be genetically prone to this disease. However, this has not been completely proved upon research.
Symptoms
As mentioned above, the symptoms of this condition may manifest over a period of time, and may gradually worsen until they are identified and treated. They may begin with weakness of the legs, and slowly lead to dysfunction of all motor movements in extreme conditions.
The symptoms that give away the presence of this disorder are as follows:
  • A classic symptom of this disorder is a 'pins and needles' sensation, particularly in the legs and arms.
  • General numbness of body parts also characterizes this disorder.
  • An affected person may experience overall weakness even in performing daily activities, as this condition affects one's metabolism.
  • Muscle cramps of the arms and legs, and spasms of the muscles, are most common among those experiencing this condition.
  • Men who consume alcohol excessively over prolonged periods and begin developing this condition may be prone to impotence.
  • Low blood pressure is another sign of the onset of alcoholic neuropathy.
  • This condition also affects urination, by first causing a difficulty in beginning the process, creating the sensation of frequent urination as the bladder does not empty completely upon urination, and proceeding towards incontinence or lack of control over urination leading to leaking of the urine.
  • While constipation is a symptom of this condition, so is diarrhea. These symptoms may further manifest into nausea and frequent vomiting.
  • On a slightly advanced level, one may experience difficulty in swallowing food and drink.
  • If the symptoms go unnoticed, the existence of this condition may lead to speech impairment.
  • As the functioning of body parts and motor movements are affected, one may experience progressive degeneration of these functions and loss of any sensation in those parts of the body.
An overview of the alcoholic neuropathy prognosis states that the damage caused by this condition is generally considered permanent, particularly if the symptoms are ignored while the consumption of alcohol continues. Also, if the nutritional deficiencies that contribute to this condition are not identified and corrected, the damage may worsen. Though this disorder is not life-threatening, the overall well-being is affected, and so is the general quality of life.
What begins as mild discomfort may result in severe complications over time, and thus, if one experiences any of the aforementioned symptoms, or a combination of them, they should not be ignored. One must consult a doctor immediately to arrest the problem at its onset, to avoid further complications.
Treatment
Several tests are conducted to determine the presence of this disorder. The basic tests include the knee jerk reflexes, and an eye exam, that may indicate a decreased pupil function. Further, the tests may include a check for nutritional deficiencies such as those of thiamine (vitamin B1), vitamin B12, folic acid, vitamin A, niacin (vitamin B3), pyridoxine (vitamin B6), and pantothenic acid and biotin. The tests also include a check on the liver and kidney function, thyroid function, nerve biopsy, vitamin and mineral levels in the body, serum electrolyte levels, nerve conduction tests, and a check on the gastrointestinal function.
Once these tests have been completed and the presence of alcoholic neuropathy has been confirmed, one may undergo the following treatment procedure, which primarily involves controlling the symptoms of this disorder, improving one's ability to function independently, and preventing the possibility of injury caused by weakness and impaired motor function. Needless to say, recovery will begin only when one can stop drinking alcohol.
  • The lacking nutrients in the body have to be brought back to normal levels. For this, one may have to change his/her diet, and include additional supplements to incorporate all the missing nutrients, and eliminate these deficiencies.
  • In order to improve muscle function, one may have to undergo physical therapy.
  • For the pain, one may have to consume pain killers such as aspirin or ibuprofen. In some cases, even antidepressants may be required. The effect of these medicines on the body may vary from person to person. Any of these medicines are to be consumed only under the guidance of and prescription by a qualified doctor, as prolonged use of medicines to eliminate these symptoms may lead to drug dependence.
  • In order to reduce the muscle cramps and pain caused in legs, one may keep their legs in an elevated position as much as possible.
  • Since blood pressure is affected, one may need to address this problem and take relevant medication for the same. Another problem that may have to be treated is the gastrointestinal condition.
  • Urination problems may be initially treated by catheterization, and slowly progress to a manual effort at urinating at regular intervals.
  • To control symptoms of dizziness upon getting up, one may have to sleep with the head in an elevated position, and increase the intake of salt in the diet. Taking the necessary medication is a measure, common to almost every symptom.
  • Since persons affected by this disorder have reduced sensations of the skin and numbness, they may require to be very cautious. For instance, it is important to check the temperature levels of the bathing water to avoid burns that may not be sensed, to change footwear that may cause pressure on the feet, and to frequently check the feet for any injuries caused due to footwear or other reasons.
Alcoholic neuropathy reversal is possible depending on the extent to which the symptoms have manifested themselves in the body. Though it may not be completely reversible in some cases, the extremity of this condition can be reduced by following the aforementioned treatments.
Along with the treatment of physical symptoms, social support and behavior modification go a long way in alcohol treatment. It is important to remember that the effects of excessive alcohol consumption are not only physical but also psychological. Unless one is not given the necessary emotional and moral support to first come to terms with, and then treat this problem, it is going to be a lost cause.
Disclaimer: This WellnessKeen article is for informative purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for expert medical advice.