Alcohol-related neurologic disease refers to a range of conditions caused by alcohol intake that affect the nerves and nervous system. Neurologic disorders can include fetal alcohol syndrome, dementia, and alcoholic neuropathy.

Alcohol is often consumed as a social beverage, but there are risks associated with it. Drinking alcohol can have a negative effect on the body, particularly on the nerves and muscle cells.

Alcohol is also considered an addictive substance. Consuming too much, especially over months or years, can result in severe symptoms.

Keep reading to learn about the different types of alcohol-related neurologic disease and its signs and symptoms.

Aside from intoxication, or drunkenness, drinking too much alcohol in a short time or over time can cause other conditions, including:

  • memory loss
  • seizures
  • headaches
  • memory blackouts
  • coordination issues
  • dehydration
  • overdose

Long-term misuse can damage the nervous system, liver, and other organs. This damage may be irreversible. Drinking too much alcohol can also alter levels of certain nutrients in your body, including:

  • thiamine (vitamin B1)
  • folate (vitamin B9)
  • vitamins B6 and B12

These vitamins are needed for proper nerve function. A diet poor in nutrients or avoiding eating can make nutritional deficiencies worse.

Alcohol-related neurologic disease can include the following conditions:

Females can be more susceptible than males to many of the negative consequences of alcohol use, such as nerve damage, as they may begin to see effects from a lower amount of alcohol consumption. This may be due to body weight and other biological differences.

Mild or moderate drinking may be safe for some people. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drinking less or not at all may help you avoid neurological harm.

Alcohol misuse can have many direct and indirect effects on the brain and nervous system. Examples of neurologic disease caused by alcohol can include:

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS)

This condition is caused by brain damage due to a thiamine, or vitamin B1, deficiency. Thiamine deficiency is common in people who misuse alcohol. WKS is a combination of two different neurological diseases:

Wernicke’s encephalopathy

This is a severe and short-term neurologic disease that can be life threatening.

Symptoms can include:

Korsakoff syndrome

This is a long lasting, or chronic, neurological disease. It usually develops as symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy go away.

Symptoms may include:

  • problems with learning and memory, including amnesia
  • forgetfulness
  • poor coordination
  • difficulty walking
  • hallucinations

Alcoholic neuropathy

Alcoholic neuropathy occurs when too much alcohol damages the peripheral nerves. This can be permanent, as alcohol can cause changes to the nerves themselves. Deficiencies in B6 and B12, thiamine, folate, niacin, and vitamin E can make it worse. These vitamins are all needed for proper nerve function.

Symptoms can include:

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome occurs when someone who has been drinking excessive amounts of alcohol for an extended period of time suddenly stops drinking or reduces their intake. Symptoms can develop just 5 hours after the last drink and persist for weeks.

Common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can include:

A more serious type of withdrawal is called delirium tremens. This can cause:

These symptoms can occur in addition to the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.

Alcohol-induced cerebellar degeneration

Cerebellar degeneration caused by alcohol occurs when neurons in the cerebellum deteriorate and die. The cerebellum is the part of the brain that controls coordination and balance.

Researchers have not determined if this is caused by the effects of alcohol on the brain or is the result of thiamine deficiency.

Symptoms can include:

  • unsteady walk
  • tremor in the trunk of the body
  • jerky movements of the arms or legs
  • slurred speech
  • rapid movements of the eyes, called nystagmus

Alcohol-related myopathy

Alcohol affects muscle fibers causing alcoholic myopathy. Drinking too much alcohol over time can weaken the muscles. This condition can be acute, affecting people for a short period of time before resolving, or chronic, lasting for a longer period of time.

Up to 46 percent of people with alcohol-related myopathy showed noticeable reductions in strength compared with people without the condition.

Symptoms can include:

Does alcohol cause muscle weakness?

Alcohol misuse can cause muscle weakness. According to a 2017 review, muscle myopathy is common in alcohol use disorder. In addition, about 40 to 60 percent of people who experience chronic alcohol misuse also experience alcohol-related myopathy.

Fetal alcohol syndrome

Fetal alcohol syndrome can occur when a person is exposed to alcohol before birth.

Risks for the baby can include brain damage and developmental, cognitive, and behavioral issues. These issues can appear at any time during childhood. No amount of alcohol is safe to drink while pregnant, according to the CDC.

Symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome can include:

  • low body weight
  • poor muscle coordination
  • hyperactive behavior
  • difficulties with attention and memory
  • learning disabilities, and speech and language delays
  • issues with reasoning and judgment
  • vision or hearing problems
  • problems with the heart or kidneys

Excessive consumption of alcohol causes alcohol-related neurologic disease. When you consume alcohol, it’s absorbed into your bloodstream from the stomach and the small intestine. It’s then broken down by the liver and expelled from the body.

The liver can only break down alcohol in small amounts at a time. The alcohol will continue to circulate in the bloodstream and eventually affect other organs.

Alcohol can have significant negative effects on the central nervoussystem (CNS). The CNS includes the brain and spinal cord. Drinking alcohol can also have negative effects on the peripheral nervous system (PNS). This includes the nerves that send signals to the muscles and organs.

How alcohol affects the brain and nervous system can depend on:

  • how often a person drinks
  • how much a person drinks
  • the age at which a person starts to drink
  • how long a person has been drinking
  • sex
  • genetic factors
  • family history of alcoholism
  • diet and general health

Early diagnosis can help prevent permanent neurological damage. A doctor will take a thorough health history and have you complete questionnaires related to alcohol intake to help diagnose these conditions.

It’s important to fill out questionnaires about alcohol intake and nutrition honestly. Diagnosis depends largely on noticing the signs of alcohol misuse. These may include:

  • neglecting major responsibilities at work, school, or at home
  • drinking while driving
  • arrests for driving drunk or fighting while drunk
  • inability to limit drinking
  • continued use of alcohol despite negative consequences
  • experiencing withdrawal symptoms

Some tests can be performed by a doctor to rule out other causes of neurologic symptoms.

Avoiding alcohol is the best way to treat these conditions and relieve symptoms. The earlier you stop intake, the more likely you are to recover.

You may need inpatient rehab or medical care, especially if you exhibit alcohol use disorder, alcohol dependence, or severe withdrawal symptoms. A good source of help is support from family and friends. Other support sources include:

  • local Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) support groups
  • national agencies
  • helplines

Once you stop alcohol intake, a doctor can address your specific symptoms. Every person’s needs are different. Doctors tailor specific treatments and alcohol abstinence programs to the individual.

Treatment may include:

  • cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and other therapies
  • counseling
  • prescription medications
  • attending support groups

Intravenous thiamine may reverse the symptoms of WKS. But delirium tremens is a medical emergency and requires a hospital stay. You may need to be sedated for more than a week until the alcohol withdrawal symptoms go away. And a doctor may use brain-imaging techniques to monitor treatment over time.

Your condition can get worse if you continue to drink alcohol. Permanent damage to the nervous system and other parts of the body may occur. This may lead to:

  • disability
  • chronic pain
  • death

Completely avoiding alcohol and eating a balanced diet can help minimize damage. Your chances for recovery depend on how early the disease is diagnosed and how much damage has already occurred.

In a 2019 study, researchers showed that quitting alcohol had a positive effect on most people’s mental well-being. They noted the effect was particularly noticeable for women.

Doctors or family and friends can provide early intervention, which can help you avoid alcohol-related neurologic disease.

Steps you can take for prevention include:

  • learning how much alcohol is considered too much
  • limiting your daily alcohol intake to 1 drink or less for females, and 2 drinks or less for males, according to the CDC’s dietary guidelines for alcohol
  • avoiding alcohol altogether

Ultimately, the best way to prevent alcohol-related neurologic disease is to not drink alcohol.

Alcohol misuse can lead to neurological damage that can affect multiple areas of a person’s health and well-being. The best way to avoid the issue is to limit alcoholic consumption to 2 or fewer drinks per day for males and 1 or fewer for females.

Several treatment options and interventions can help a person recover from alcohol dependence. Once a person stops using alcohol, they can often experience recovery from symptoms, though in some cases, some damage may be permanent.