What is Alcoholic Neuropathy? [Guide]

Alcoholic neuropathy is nerve damage that occurs in someone who drinks alcohol excessively.
doctor checks patient for symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy

Table of Contents

Signs and Symptoms of Alcoholic Neuropathy

Because of the gradual onset of alcoholic neuropathy, the symptoms are subtle and often mistaken for the normal injuries of everyday life.

Symptoms may include:

  • Numbness of the toes, feet, legs, fingers, hands, or arms
  • Pain, tingling, weakness, or “pins and needles” feelings in the toes, feet, legs, fingers, hands, or arms
  • Lack of coordination of the feet or hands
  • Loss of balance/unsteadiness when walking
  • Bruises, cuts, sores, or skin infections on the toes, feet, or fingers
  • Decreased pain from injuries, especially on the feet or hands
  • Dizziness, particularly when standing with eyes closed
  • Trouble walking a straight line, even without recent alcohol use
  • Constipation or diarrhea; urinary incontinence or retention
  • Sexual dysfunction; infertility or erection problems in men

Many body parts, such as the limbs, the bowel and urinary system, and extremities (hands and feet), can be affected. Other serious symptoms include difficulty swallowing, abdominal bloating, dizziness or fainting, impaired speech, sensitivity to temperature (too hot or cold), and vomiting or nausea.

While medical treatments are available and often necessary, non-medical or “home-remedy,” treatments may work for less severe cases of alcoholic neuropathy. However, patients should always see a doctor first to ensure they receive the proper treatment for the severity.

Symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy that respond poorly or not at all to these remedies include impotence, diarrhea, or constipation.

Because patients experience a loss of sensations, including pain, protecting body parts from injury is important.

Checking water temperature to prevent burns, changing footwear often or inspecting feet for injuries, and guarding the extremities to prevent pressure injuries are all imperative life changes a patient must make.

Several medical conditions mimic signs of alcoholic neuropathy, including diabetic neuropathy, peripheral vascular disease, spine disease, muscle disease, multiple sclerosis, Guillain-Barre syndrome, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease).


The Effects of Alcoholic Neuropathy

Due to excessive alcohol consumption over a long period, the effects of alcoholic neuropathy are caused by nerve damage and fall into four main categories:

Decreased sensation

While lessened sensations in the hands and feet may not sound devasting, they can cause serious issues. Patients who cannot feel themselves getting injured must be aware of frequent bumps and scrapes, bleeding and infections of wounds, burns, and diminished sensory skills. These include poor balance and lack of coordination of fine motor skills such as walking or fingers.


Conversely, another effect involves painful or uncomfortable sensations. A light touch can feel painful, even bedcovers on the legs. Constant pain, such as burning, throbbing, or “pins and needles” in the hands or feet, is one of the most annoying aspects of alcoholic neuropathy.

Muscle weakness

Muscles require a message from nerves to function. The muscles don’t function normally when that message is interrupted due to damaged nerves. Again, weakness in the hands and feet is caused by this condition.


These nerves control bodily organ functions, including the bladder, stomach, and intestines. Alcoholic autonomic neuropathy weakens these autonomic nerves, causing bowel and bladder function deterioration and even sexual dysfunction.

These effects of alcoholic neuropathy are often permanent. They worsen with continued alcohol consumption, so seeking treatment and stopping drinking are essential to prevent worsening nerve damage.

Patients often ask, “Can you reverse alcoholic neuropathy?” While reversing or curing is difficult, it is possible if action is taken quickly and caught in the early stages.

You can prevent alcoholic neuropathy by, among other things, avoiding drinking alcohol excessively, eating a healthy, balanced diet, taking vitamin supplements, and seeking help if you cannot avoid alcohol abuse.

Diagnosing Alcoholic Neuropathy

To begin the recovery process, patients must be completely honest with their doctor about how much alcohol they consume. Alcoholic neuropathy has several causes and symptoms that other diseases may also present, but fortunately, a doctor can diagnose this condition in a few different ways.

Tests that will help determine neuropathy include:

  • Blood Chemistry: Although this test doesn’t directly show alcoholic neuropathy, it indicates overall health. For example, it looks at liver and kidney functions; one of the signs of neuropathy is difficulty urinating or incontinence.
  • Complete Blood Count (CBC): This type of test offers insights into a patient’s overall health, including how well the immune system works.
  • Esophagogastroduodenoscopy: A doctor can look for things that cause nausea, vomiting, and other symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy by analyzing the esophagus and upper digestive tract.
  • Electromyography: Nerve cells send electrical signals. Electromyography is used to measure if nerve cells are or are not functioning properly. The process involves putting needles into the skin or muscles connected to the device to measure electrical activity.
  • Nerve Conduction Test: Similar to electromyography, this test measures the speed and strength of nerve signals. However, electrodes are placed on the skin rather than into the skin and muscles.
  • Nerve Biopsy: A simple procedure, often under local anesthetic, to remove and test a small sample of a patient’s nerve tissue for any damage.
  • Neurological Exam: To test a patient’s reflexes, muscle strength, coordination, and sensory function, all impacted by alcohol neuropathy, a doctor conducts a physical exam.
  • Upper Gastrointestinal and Small Bowel Series: A doctor performs a diagnostic test of the entire digestive tract using X-rays. This may help determine what is causing the abdominal bloating, constipation, or diarrhea often associated with alcohol neuropathy.

Stopping Drinking and Getting Through the Detox and Withdrawal Process

The best way to begin alcoholic neuropathy recovery is to stop drinking; the sooner, the better.

Understanding the signs of this little-known disease early and choosing to cease the destructive behavior can prevent a lifetime of health issues.

Like any addiction withdrawal, going through alcohol withdrawal neuropathy is painful, and frightening and should not be attempted without professional or medical assistance.

Trying to quit an alcohol addiction by going “cold turkey” is often dangerous and even deadly.

With the complications of alcoholic neuropathy, especially with symptoms such as lack of coordination, decreased pain sensitivity, and poor balance, to name a few, going through withdrawal without medical assistance is inappropriate and extremely precarious.

Part of detoxification (or detox) is to start eliminating harmful substances from the body. However, detoxification is also for coping with the symptoms of withdrawal that addicts dread.

Detoxification might involve the slow reduction of the chemical, temporarily substituting different chemicals, or going “cold turkey” under supervision, and has to be performed as quickly and safely as possible.

There are many types of detox, but medically supervised withdrawal/detox is best used with addicts who are chronic substance abusers and incorporates round-the-clock clinical supervision in an inpatient environment.

When a patient suffers from alcohol neuropathy, they are a chronic alcohol abuser. This kind of detox is typically assisted by prescribed medicines that help decrease the discomfort of withdrawal.

Detox severs the physical addiction to harmful substances. Still, it doesn’t rehabilitate the client, so we encourage our clients to go directly into a custom-designed rehab treatment program to support a long-lasting recovery.

Neuropathy is not curable, but it is possible to live comfortably with it with adequate treatment.

Drinking Must Be Stopped to Treat Neuropathy

If your alcohol intake has become so prevalent that it physically damages your nerve cells, it is time to stop drinking and seek treatment to prevent the damage from worsening.

To stop drinking, treatment may include counseling or social support such as an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), medication, or other forms of therapy and rehabilitation. But first, alcohol addiction must be addressed.

After the addiction is under control, treatment for alcoholic neuropathy can be addressed. The goals of this treatment include controlling the symptoms, maximizing the patient’s ability to function independently, and preventing more or worse injuries.

Understanding that poor nutrition is a huge factor, helping the patient correct a diet of unhealthy processed foods is a great first step. A healthy diet should be supplemented with vitamins (B12 and E) to replace loss, including thiamine and folic acid.

Other medications can combat specific needs, such as pain relievers (antidepressants and anticonvulsants) or medications to help with urination.

Physical therapy and even orthopedic devices such as splints may be needed to help with balance, maintain muscle function, and correct the position of limbs. Specific neuropathy symptoms have specific treatments – for example, bladder problems can be treated using catheterization.

Reach Out For Help With Alcoholism Today

Addiction is a complex illness, and we believe in treating it as one. Alcohol is unhealthy for the mind and body, often leading to serious and long-lasting addiction problems.

Seeking help from experienced, certified rehabilitation programs dramatically increases the probability of recovery. We help addicts by teaching them about alcohol use, examining the roots of their dependency, and providing ways to battle relapse and cravings.

If you want to talk to a dependency professional to take the first step toward alcoholic neuropathy recovery, call us as soon as possible!

The Helpline is free. Dial (888) 906-0952 and press 1.


[1] Medlineplus.gov: Alcoholic Neuropathy

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