Alcoholism can be kind of a hard subject to talk about, mostly because the disease has such serious social ramifications. Many who suffer from alcoholism feel ashamed, depressed, or irritable, and those around them suffer too. Alcohol can be powerfully addictive, and so a habit of excessive drinking can be hard to break, even when you want to.
Just as the social consequences of alcoholism can be devastating, so too are the physical consequences to your body. One of the dangers of alcoholism is that it can cause significant nerve damage. You may have heard how those with diabetes may suffer from peripheral neuropathy (or nerve damage), but people with alcoholism can develop neuropathy as well. This nerve damage may be caused by ethanol, which is believed to be toxic to nerve tissue. Or, damage to the nerves may be a result of the lack of nutrition frequently seen in alcoholics. People with alcoholism may drink instead of eating properly, and alcohol can use up or interfere with the absorption of vitamins and minerals, thus depriving nerves of crucial nutrients. Most likely, neuropathy is caused a bit by both.
Your peripheries (including your feet) may be particularly susceptible to nerve damage. Any of your several types of nerves can be affected: your sensory nerves (which provide information about sensation, such as pain or heat), motor nerves (which carry signals to your muscles to provide tone and movement), or your autonomic nerves (which control reflexive, or non-voluntary body functions, such as breathing, heartbeats, and digestion). The nerve damage that’s most likely to affect your feet directly is to the sensory and motor nerves.
Losing motor nerve function may or may not sound like a big deal to you. I mean, do your feet need to be totally toned to do their work properly? Well, kind of. Losing motor nerves in the foot may mean that the muscles in your feet will weaken. This weakening can cause deformities such as claw toe (toes that curl down into the soles of your shoes like bird claws), which can lead to serious discomfort as they rub against the inside of your shoe and form calluses. If coupled with sensory nerve damage, these calluses can become serious problems.
Imagine you have an infected toenail. It hurts, right? So you go to the podiatrist, who takes care of it for you, and you heal and go about your business. Now, imagine if you still had that infected toenail, but couldn’t feel it. Or if you had a blister on the bottom of your foot and kept walking on it. Or a splinter. Or a stress fracture.
Sensation is a vital signal from our bodies. Pain, while unpleasant, lets us know when something is wrong. If you couldn’t feel pain in your feet, and then injured them, the injury would get worse and worse over time, perhaps leading to ulcers, Charcot foot, or other serious complications.
Sometimes damage to sensory nerves causes pain rather than numbness. Some people feel prickling or pins and needles sensations in their feet, while others may have pain so intense that even having a sheet on top of the feet is unbearable.
Treating alcoholism can be difficult. Certainly, getting support while you defeat your alcohol problem is essential, and support groups such as AA and others exist just for such a purpose. Once you begin to get control of your alcohol use, it’s important to tackle your medical issues from other angles as well. While nerve damage is usually permanent, there are things you can do to prevent further harm to them. Taking nutritional supplements (particularly thiamine and folic acid) can help, as will avoiding alcohol.
Pain medications, physical therapy, antidepressant or anticonvulsant medications can all help ease your symptoms, and your doctor may have other suggestions based on your individual case. It’s also important that you treat your feet very, very carefully. Take care not to burn your feet with hot water, inspect your feet regularly for damage, and always check your footwear for foreign objects before putting them on.
It may be hard, but with help from professional sources, as well as from friends and family, you can overcome your addiction. You may not be able to reverse some of the physical damage caused by alcoholism, but with your doctor’s help, you should be able to control your symptoms and have a life that both you and your feet will enjoy.