Can Alcohol Abuse Cause Nerve Damage

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis completed medical school at The University of Mississippi Medical Center and residency in general psychiatry in 2003. He completed a fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 2005. Following this, he served as Chief Medical Officer for 10 years of Brentwood Behavioral Healthcare a private health system including a 105-bed hospital, residential treatment, and intensive outpatient services.

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Alcoholism and Irreversible Nerve Damage

Alcohol abuse is far more common than people realize, and its effects can be detrimental to both the body and the mind. Because it’s a socially accepted practice to drink – and sometimes to drink a lot – alcohol abuse can often be dismissed as normal.

What Is Alcohol Use Disorder?

Alcohol use disorder (AUD), or alcoholism, is the excessive consumption of alcohol. AUD can creep up on individuals and can gradually shift from social drinking to problematic drinking. 

Once that shift occurs, there are physical changes in the body that make it difficult – or even impossible – to become a casual drinker again. In other words, the brain and the body can be permanently affected and damaged through years of excessive alcohol consumption. There are a few things that characterize alcohol abuse.

Excessive Consumption

Individuals with AUD tend to drink far more alcohol than is considered safe. This includes binge drinking or consistently drinking over the recommended daily and weekly limits. They often see this level of consumption as normal.


As your body gets accustomed to more alcohol, it develops a tolerance to it. This means you need to drink more to achieve the same effect. And the more you drink, the higher your tolerance for alcohol becomes. 

Negative Consequences

There are typically harmful consequences for individuals who have developed AUD. Alcoholics may drink and drive, they may skip work or show up late and suffer the consequences, or they may end up straining their personal relationships. 

All of these signs indicate that there is alcohol abuse happening. 

Quitting Is a Challenge

One of the more telling signs that individuals are abusing alcohol is that they are unable to stop drinking once they start. Once alcoholism causes a change in your brain chemistry, addiction has set in. Many alcoholics don’t want to quit because they don’t think that they have a problem.

Withdrawal Symptoms

AUD is also characterized by withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking. These symptoms can range from severe to mild. There may be tremors (shaking hands), irritability, depression, and even nausea. To avoid these symptoms, alcoholics continue to drink, perpetuating a vicious cycle. 

Health Deteriorates

When individuals abuse alcohol, they may develop health problems like liver disease, memory lapses, and cardiovascular disturbances. There may also be severe mood swings that fluctuate when they drink and don’t drink. If the drinking continues unabated, there could be acute liver damage, alcohol poisoning, and more.

Alarming Statistics

The statistics on alcohol abuse in the United States are concerning. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 29.5 million people aged 12 and older suffered from AUD in 2020. This broke down further to 16.6 million men and 13 million women. Of individuals 18 and over, 28.6 million suffered from AUD in 2020. This broke down to 16.3 million men and 12.4 million women.

Although not every binge drinker is an alcoholic, consistently binge drinking can lead to alcoholism. In 2021, roughly 60 million of those 12 years and older (21.5%) reported binge drinking in the past month. In other words, one in five people aged 12 and over binged on alcohol in the past month. 

The statistics on alcohol-related deaths are equally grim. Between 1999 and 2017, 1 million people died in the U.S. from alcohol-related deaths. Worse, alcohol-related deaths are increasing. In 1999, 35,914 death certificates mentioned alcohol, and in 2017, 72,558 death certificates mentioned alcohol. 

Youth suffer from alcohol abuse too albeit in smaller numbers. In 2022, 2.4% of students in 12th grade said they drank heavily. There were also 1,573 alcohol-related vehicle accidents caused by underage drinking from 2002 to 2021. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that the cost of AUD in 2019 was around $249 billion. Roughly $27 billion was for healthcare costs.

Drug and alcohol rehab centers account for $4.9 billion in 2022. Still, not many people go into treatment when they have AUD. In 2021, only 4.6% of those suffering from AUD sought treatment.

The above statistics may shift slightly from year to year, but they still indicate a growing dependence on alcohol, with too few people seeking treatment for these issues. 

Physical Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse

Drinking alcohol moderately is typically fine. However, once you push your body into a state of constant and extreme consumption, your body will react with a host of problems. 

Individuals with AUD often suffer from acid reflux, ulcers, and indigestion. This excessive alcohol consumption can eventually damage the gastrointestinal tract, causing a host of problems to the stomach. 

The most common issue found amongst alcoholics is liver damage, and it is the leading cause of death for alcoholics, causing 19.1% of alcohol-related deaths. Excess consumption can lead to alcoholic hepatitis, cirrhosis, and eventually acute liver failure. Earlier symptoms will include jaundice, where the skin and eyes turn yellow; abdominal swelling or fluid buildup, or ascites, which compromises organ function; and urine that is darker in color than normal. 

Alcohol abuse also affects the heart, and individuals who have consumed alcohol excessively may experience arrhythmias (irregular heart rhythms), hypertension (high blood pressure), and even strokes. Symptoms include shortness of breath and chest pain.

Alcohol abuse can also lead to slurred speech and memory lapses. However, prolonged use can permanently affect your memory and result in difficulties concentrating or performing complex tasks. One example is alcohol-related dementia.

Alcohol abuse can prevent the body from properly absorbing the nutrients it needs as well. Alcoholics tend to be deficient in folate, vitamin B6, vitamin B1 (thiamine), zinc, and vitamin A. Alcohol is a diuretic, which means you lose electrolytes when you drink heavily. As a result, alcoholics typically suffer from an electrolyte imbalance, or hypomagnesemia.

Because individuals with AUD are deficient in a number of nutrients, they are more prone to infections. Once they do have an infection, their recovery period tends to be longer than the average healthy person’s. 

Over a long-term period, alcoholics tend to develop broken blood vessels and facial redness. The redness is caused by enlarged vessels or telangiectasia

Finally, there is increased dependency. This results in more consumption, more severe physical symptoms, and worsening alcohol abuse. Recovery from hangovers becomes harder on the body and can take a few days. 

Alcohol Abuse and Nerve Damage

Many individuals believe that if they stop drinking, the physical damage to their bodies is reversible. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. For instance, alcohol abuse can result in nerve damage. This condition is called alcoholic neuropathy. There is no cure for alcoholic neuropathy, and even if you stop drinking, the nerve damage is permanent. 

How the Damage Occurs

Excessive alcohol consumption eventually prevents the nerves from communicating information with each other. This is the start of alcoholic neuropathy. Neuropathy typically takes several years or even decades to develop. 


Alcoholic neuropathy has several symptoms. These include:

  • Numbness, usually in the legs
  • Pins and needles sensation in the arms and legs
  • Pain or burning sensation in the arms and legs
  • Muscle cramps and aches
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Difficulty swallowing or talking

These symptoms typically start off as mild. However, as the alcohol abuse continues, the symptoms will gradually worsen.


The symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy are irreversible. Individuals can minimize the symptoms with a variety of treatments, but the symptoms will never subside completely.

One of the best ways to minimize neuropathy symptoms is by adding vitamins and supplements to your diet. Individuals suffering from AUD are often missing key vitamins that contribute to neuropathy. By adding these vitamins to the body, the progression of neuropathy can be halted. These vitamins include pyridoxine (vitamin B6), pantothenic acid, vitamin A, biotin, folic acid, and niacin (vitamin B3).

Physical therapy can help a lot, too. Therapy can be especially useful for muscle cramps, aches, and any pain in the arms and legs. Orthopedic splints may be needed to help with arm or leg movements. There is also specialized footwear that is available for those who have difficulty walking. 

Withdrawal Symptoms

If you are suffering from neuropathy as well as other physical ailments due to alcohol abuse, you may decide that it’s time to quit alcohol. If you have been an excessive drinker for years, quitting suddenly is not only difficult, but it can be dangerous. It’s highly recommended that you detox in a rehab center so that medical staff can ensure that you don’t suffer seizures or any other debilitating withdrawal symptoms.

Not all withdrawal symptoms are severe. Your withdrawal symptoms will depend on how long you’ve been drinking and your level of alcohol dependence. Shaking hands (tremors) typically occur in the early stages of withdrawal. This happens around six to eight hours after your last drink and can continue up to 30 hours after your last drink.

Excessive sweating happens because your body is eliminating the toxins that are in your body. This occurs even if the outside temperatures are cool. It’s a good idea to drink electrolytes during this period in the form of sports drinks or electrolyte-infused water, for example.

Some individuals experiencing withdrawal symptoms may feel nauseous. In addition, because the body is not only removing toxins but also trying to adjust to no alcohol in the system, you may experience severe mood swings, such as depression, irritability, and anger.

Another withdrawal symptom is insomnia or continued nights of restless sleep. This leads to overall discomfort, which further contributes to mood swings.

In addition, some individuals may suffer more severe withdrawal symptoms, such as tachycardia, or heart palpitations. Although rare, some alcoholics may experience hallucinations and mental confusion when withdrawing from alcohol. After about two days of no alcohol, some individuals may have seizures. This can be life-threatening, so it’s important to seek medical attention immediately. 

Another severe withdrawal symptom is delirium tremens. This is characterized by whole-body tremors, hallucinations, hypertension, and vomiting. It can eventually lead to cardiovascular failure. It typically occurs two to four days after the last drink. 

What Treatment Is Available?

Once you have decided to enter a rehab facility, you’ll find that there are a variety of treatments available. These treatments depend on your needs, the severity of your AUD, and if there are co-occurring mental issues that should be addressed as well.

Before treatment begins, rehab centers will help you detoxify. This means you will remove all the alcohol and drugs from your system under supervision. Supervision ensures that you can receive medical attention immediately if your withdrawal symptoms become life-threatening. Once you have gone through detox, you can now start a treatment program. There are a few different levels of care that you can receive.

Inpatient Rehab

Inpatient rehab facilities provide an intense and structured environment so that individuals can focus solely on their recovery. Two to three months is usually recommended for inpatient rehab, as this period allows you to develop new and healthier habits. Individuals get to live at the center and undergo a treatment plan tailored to them.

Outpatient Rehab

For individuals with a less severe alcohol addiction or those who have completed inpatient care, outpatient rehab is recommended. This means you get to live at home and still work or attend school. Your afternoons or evenings will be spent on recovery at the rehab center. Like with inpatient rehab, you will have a customized treatment plan to help with your recovery.

Counseling and Therapy

Customized treatment plans will depend on your needs. There could be a mix of individual therapy and group therapy, or you could specialize in a specific type of therapy. Some therapies include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and motivational enhancement therapy (MET).

Dual-diagnosis Treatment

About 50% of individuals with AUD have a co-occurring mental health issue. This could be anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or others. At Defining Wellness Centers, we provide a treatment plan that addresses your mental health disorder as well as your alcohol use disorder. 

Support Groups

Besides individual therapy, there are also support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.). These are designed to create community and peer support. Individuals can share their own experiences while learning about the challenges that others face. These groups provide community and help you build a healthy support system.

Medication-assisted Treatment (MAT)

It’s challenging for the body to recover without alcohol, and sometimes, it’s virtually impossible to do so without the use of medications. Medications, such as Antabuse (disulfiram), can help manage cravings.

Holistic Therapies

Therapies like meditation, acupuncture, and yoga have proven to be beneficial in helping individuals with AUD manage their moods and their cravings. 

Aftercare Programs

Maintaining sobriety is a lifelong journey, and rehab centers often provide individuals with services and support systems that can help them maintain their sobriety. 

Defining Wellness Centers

When you are ready to address your alcohol use disorder, Defining Wellness Centers can help. Besides a medical detox program, we offer various treatment programs that can help make recovery easier. Started in 2019, our family-led center focuses on evidence-based technology to help those suffering from addiction. We offer a positive environment that encourages hope and healing. Contact us today if you are ready to make a change in your life.

Begin your Recovery Today

If you are ready to take the step towards a new life, call Defining Wellness today and learn more about how we can help you.