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Neuropathy is a condition in which there is damage to the nerves, known as peripheral nerves, that carry signals between the brain and the rest of the body. These nerves normally transmit information about movement, touch, and bodily functions that go on automatically, such as sweating and breathing. Alcoholic neuropathy is a kind of neuropathy that occurs in people who have consumed large amounts of alcohol for a long time. The physical effects of alcohol then lead to nerve damage in a way which is not fully understood. Typically, the lower legs and feet are affected first, with symptoms of numbness, burning and tingling, often followed by muscle weakness.
There are numerous causes of different types of neuropathy including diabetes, vitamin B12 deficiency, drugs, infections and kidney disease. Alcoholic neuropathy usually develops slowly over a long period of time, although occasionally it will progress rapidly. The condition is thought to affect from a quarter to over a half of all chronic alcoholics, that is people who are addicted to alcohol to the extent that it damages their health and quality of life.
Symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy resulting purely from alcohol abuse tend to involve mainly the loss of normal skin sensation, with a prickling or burning feeling in the toes and feet being commonly experienced. Many people with alcoholic neuropathy also suffer from vitamin B1, or thiamine, deficiency, due to an inadequate diet. Thiamine deficiency causes neuropathy symptoms of its own, so a person suffering from both conditions at once may experience a range of different neuropathy symptoms which can be difficult to attribute to one cause or the other.
As alcoholic neuropathy worsens, the person may begin to have difficulty walking and falls may become quite frequent. Eventually, symptoms found in the feet and lower limbs, such as numbness, decreased awareness of touch and temperature sensation, and weakness and wasting of the muscles, may progress to involve the upper limbs. The resulting pattern of alcoholic neuropathy symptoms in both upper and lower limbs is known as a glove and stocking distribution.
Treatment for alcoholic neuropathy depends on stopping further consumption of alcohol to allow the damaged nerves to recover. Consuming a healthy, balanced diet, with extra vitamin B, can help restore nerve function. Physical therapy may be required to strengthen muscles and improve walking and, if the neuropathy has become severe enough to cause pain, pain-relieving medication may be needed. In order to increase the chances of withdrawing from alcohol, psychiatric help and input from support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous may be necessary.