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How Does Alcohol Affect the Nervous System?

Have you ever woken up with numbness or tingling in your hands and feet after a night of heavy drinking? That pins and needles sensation could be a sign of alcoholic neuropathy, or nerve damage caused by excessive alcohol use over time. While an occasional drink may not cause lasting harm, frequent binge drinking or long-term alcohol abuse can take a major toll on your nervous system. The effects tend to worsen over time, so the sooner you understand how alcohol impacts your nerves, the better equipped you’ll be to avoid permanent damage.

Path to Recovery Detox will help you understand what alcoholic neuropathy is, how it develops, the symptoms to watch for, and the steps you can take to protect your health and mobility. The good news is that catching this condition early and making lifestyle changes can help stop the progression and even reverse some of the effects. Keep reading to learn!

How Does Alcohol Impact the Brain and Central Nervous System?

How Does Alcohol Affect the Nervous System?

Alcohol affects your brain and nervous system in some major ways. When you drink, the alcohol is absorbed into your bloodstream and travels throughout your body, including your brain and nerves.

  • It slows down communication between neurons in your brain and nervous system. This impacts your coordination, speech, memory, and decision-making.
  • It reduces the effectiveness of neurotransmitters like glutamate that are involved in learning and memory. This is why you may experience blackouts or short-term memory loss after heavy drinking.
  • It causes inflammation and damage to nerves, especially in the extremities. This can lead to numbness, tingling, and pain in the hands and feet known as alcoholic neuropathy.

The more you drink and the longer you’ve been drinking, the greater the impact on your brain and nervous system. While some changes may be temporary, others can become permanent over time.

What is Alcoholic Neuropathy and its Causes?

Alcoholic neuropathy is a neurological condition caused by long-term, excessive alcohol consumption. Specifically, it’s the result of a lack of thiamine, or vitamin B1. Your body needs thiamine to function properly, especially your nervous system and brain.

  • When you drink too much alcohol, it prevents your body from absorbing thiamine from the foods you eat. Over time, this thiamine deficiency leads to nerve damage.

The signs show up gradually, so you may not notice them right away. At first, you might feel tingling, numbness, or pain in your feet and legs. But as the neuropathy progresses, the symptoms can spread upward into your hands, arms, and other parts of the body.

The more you drink and the longer you’ve been drinking excessively, the greater your risk of developing this condition. The damage is often reversible if you stop drinking, start following a healthy diet, and possibly take thiamine supplements. The sooner you make these lifestyle changes, the better, but some symptoms may remain or continue to worsen even after quitting alcohol.

The bottom line is that alcoholic neuropathy is preventable. Limiting alcohol consumption and maintaining a balanced diet with plenty of thiamine can help ensure your nervous system stays healthy for years to come. Your body and mind will thank you for it.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Alcoholic Neuropathy?

Numbness and Tingling

The most common signs of alcoholic neuropathy are numbness, tingling, and a pins and needles sensation in the feet and legs. This happens because the nerves that send signals from your feet to your brain are damaged by alcohol use and vitamin deficiencies. The medical term for this is paresthesia. You may notice it more at night or when you first get up in the morning.

Muscle Weakness

You may experience a loss of muscle strength or coordination in the feet and legs. This can make it difficult to walk, climb stairs, or pick up objects. Your gait or balance may also be affected.

Sensitivity to Touch

Your sense of touch and ability to feel pain, heat, or cold may be dulled or hypersensitive. You may not feel injuries like cuts, burns, or fractures. Or light touches, like socks or bed sheets, may feel painful. This sensory loss puts you at high risk of wounds and injuries.

Other Symptoms

● Cramps or muscle spasms in the legs
● Diarrhea or constipation
● Bladder problems like incontinence or retention
● Sexual dysfunction in men like erectile dysfunction

If you experience these symptoms, especially numbness or weakness in the feet or legs, see your doctor right away. Early diagnosis and treatment of alcoholic neuropathy are key to preventing significant nerve damage and disability.

Diagnosing Alcoholic Neuropathy

Diagnosing alcoholic neuropathy typically involves a combination of medical tests and procedures. Some common ways to confirm an alcoholic neuropathy diagnosis include:

Nerve Conduction Studies

These non-invasive tests measure how fast signals travel through your peripheral nerves. Slowed nerve signaling can indicate damage from alcohol use. Electrodes placed on your skin deliver small electrical pulses to stimulate your nerves.


This test measures muscle response to nerve stimulation. A needle electrode inserted into your muscle records the electrical activity in your muscles. Irregular muscle responses may point to alcoholic neuropathy.

Blood Tests

Blood work can check for low vitamin B12 or folate levels, which are common with long-term alcohol use and can contribute to nerve damage. Liver function tests may also be ordered to assess any alcohol-related liver damage

Imaging Scans

CT or MRI scans provide detailed images of your nervous system and other internal structures. These scans help rule out any other potential causes of your symptoms unrelated to alcohol use.

To confirm an alcoholic neuropathy diagnosis, your doctor will review all test results and medical information. The diagnosis may be made if other potential causes have been ruled out and there is clear evidence of peripheral nerve damage consistent with long-term excessive alcohol consumption. An accurate diagnosis is key to developing an effective treatment plan to manage symptoms and prevent further nerve damage

How Do I Cope with Alcoholic Neuropathy?

To cope with alcoholic neuropathy, making some lifestyle changes can help manage your symptoms and slow the progression.

Reduce Alcohol Intake or Quit Drinking Altogether

The most important thing you can do is cut back or stop drinking alcohol. Continued alcohol use will only worsen your neuropathy. Ask your doctor about ways to quit safely.

Exercise Regularly

Exercise increases blood flow to your nerves and muscles. Try walking, swimming, or light strength training. Start slowly and build up as tolerated. Exercise also releases endorphins to improve your mood and act as natural painkillers.

Get Enough Rest

Aim for 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night to allow your nerves to rest and rejuvenate. Lack of sleep can intensify your symptoms.

Eat a Healthy Diet

Lean protein, fruits, and vegetables, along with whole grains, should be your main sources of whole foods. Limit sugar, red meat, and processed carbs. A balanced diet will provide the nutrients your nerves need to function properly.

Manage Other Health Conditions

Follow your doctor’s recommendations for controlling conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure. Uncontrolled conditions can contribute to nerve damage and make symptoms worse.

Practice Stress Relief

Try meditation, yoga, deep breathing, or journaling. Too much stress can exacerbate pain and discomfort. Find ways to relax and unwind that work for you.

Making Positive Lifestyle Changes

Sticking with them can help you feel more in control of your condition and ease the discomfort of alcoholic neuropathy. Be patient through the process, as it can take time for nerves to heal and symptoms to improve. But with diligent self-care, coping with this condition is possible.

What are Conditions that Might Mimic Alcoholic Neuropathy?

Alcoholic neuropathy can sometimes be confused with or mimic other conditions. Some possibilities to consider:


High blood sugar can damage nerves in a similar way to excess alcohol. Diabetic neuropathy causes numbness, pain, and weakness, often in the hands and feet.

Vitamin Deficiencies

Lack of thiamine, folate, or B12 can lead to nerve damage and similar symptoms. Correcting any deficiencies may help improve nerve function.

Autoimmune Disorders

Conditions like Guillain-Barre syndrome or chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP) cause the immune system to attack nerve cells, resulting in weakness, numbness, and pain.

Spinal Stenosis

Narrowing of the spinal canal puts pressure on the spinal cord and nerves. This can radiate pain, numbness, and weakness in the legs, feet, and buttocks.


Irritation of the sciatic nerve in the lower back can send pain through the buttocks and legs. Movement and position changes often affect the pain.

If your symptoms don’t improve after abstaining from alcohol and correcting any nutritional deficiencies, talk to your doctor. They may order blood tests, nerve conduction studies, or other procedures to determine the underlying cause and appropriate treatment. By determining the actual condition, you’ll get the right treatment and management plan to stop further nerve damage and start improving your quality of life.

How Alcoholic Neuropathy Can be Treated?

therapy can assist with alcoholic neuropathy

The primary treatments for alcoholic neuropathy focus on managing symptoms and preventing further nerve damage. The best way to treat this condition and relieve its symptoms is to avoid alcohol completely. This can halt the progression and even allow for some nerve regeneration and improvement in symptoms.

  • Prescription medications may be used to relieve pain, such as anticonvulsants, antidepressants, and opioids. Topical creams can also provide relief for some.
  • Physical therapy and occupational therapy can help improve mobility, strength, and daily function.
  • Braces, splints, and orthotics may be recommended to provide extra support.
  • A balanced diet high in B vitamins, especially B12, and folate, can promote nerve health and regeneration. Nutritional supplements may also be suggested.

In instances where individuals display alcohol use disorder, alcohol dependence, or experience severe withdrawal symptoms, it may be necessary to consider inpatient rehabilitation or medical intervention. Your doctor can tell. Every individual is unique.

Your doctor should create personalized treatment plans and alcohol abstinence regimens according to your needs. Other treatments may include alcohol detox, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), other therapies, and counseling. Support from family and friends can be a great source of help as well.

Get Assistance at Path to Recovery Detox

Get Assistance at Path to Recovery Detox

The key approach to preventing alcoholic neuropathy is to refrain from consuming excessive amounts of alcohol. If you observe any symptoms, such as numbness, following alcohol consumption, it is crucial to consult with a doctor and make efforts to completely abstain from alcohol. If abstaining from alcohol becomes challenging, Path to Recovery is available to assist.  Get in touch with us today to explore our comprehensive treatment program designed for individuals with alcohol misuse.

Contact Path To Recovery Detox

For any other questions please contact Path To Recovery Detox by filling out the form below or giving us a call at (323) 996-7773

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