As with any substance use disorder, alcoholism comes with serious detriments to your overall health. An alcohol addiction can affect your ability to think, move normally, and fight off disease. It can also increase your risk of cancer, pancreatitis, and liver and heart diseases.
But one of the most disturbing possibilities is alcoholic myopathy, or increased muscle weakness, decreased muscle strength, and changes to the muscle structure. About half of all alcoholics will develop some form of myopathy as a result of their drinking habits. While this is an alarming possibility for any alcoholic, there are ways to recognize and treat the disease.
How to tell if you have alcoholic myopathy
Symptoms of alcoholic myopathy include:
- Numbness or pain in your arms and legs.
- Experiencing a “pins and needles” feeling.
- Weakness, cramps, aches, contractions, or spasms in the muscles.
- Having trouble tolerating heat.
- Difficulty urinating (having trouble starting, feeling as if your bladder isn’t completely empty, incontinence, etc.).
- Constipation and/or diarrhea.
- Trouble swallowing.
- Nausea and/or vomiting.
- Men may also develop impotence.
Symptoms tend to affect both sides of the body equally and are more prevalent in the legs. Usually, they appear gradually and get worse over time, but case studies have shown a sudden onset of symptoms after heavy binge drinking.
Myopathy and the heart
Alcohol abuse can also cause damage to a particularly important muscle: the heart. Alcoholics are prone to weakened hearts, or cardiomyopathy. When cardiomyopathy occurs, the heart sags and stretches, making it difficult to pump blood throughout the body. If left unchecked, this leads to organ and tissue damage, and, in severe cases, even heart failure.
You might be an alcoholic with cardiomyopathy if you experience:
- Difficulty breathing.
- Unusual fatigue.
- Swelling in the legs and feet.
- Arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat).
Please seek treatment immediately if you experience any of symptoms of alcoholic myopathy, heart-related or otherwise.
How does alcoholism cause myopathy?
Without diving too deep into jargon, both alcohol and acetaldehyde — the byproduct of your liver breaking down the alcohol — work against your body’s ability to make new muscle proteins. This can result in up to 30% of lost muscle mass.
Furthermore, many people with alcoholic myopathy also lack normal levels of Vitamin E; alcohol attacks carotenoids (Vitamin E producers) in the liver, resulting in this deficiency. The problem here is that studies have proven that damaged muscle cells recover better when they’re exposed to Vitamin E. Since alcoholics don’t get enough of this necessary antioxidant, their muscles suffer.
Alcoholism and poor nutrition go hand-in-hand. In the case of extremely heavy drinkers, alcohol replaces food in their diet, but a side-effect of any alcohol use is that the body is unable to absorb the nutrients it needs from food. Without enough Vitamin B, for example, nerve cells get destroyed, resulting in the tingling sensation of neuropathy.
When all three combine, alcoholic myopathy is all but inevitable.
How can alcoholic myopathy be treated?
The first step is to get sober to prevent further damage. The initial detoxification period takes about a month, and it can be done in an inpatient or outpatient setting, with the help of a group like Alcoholics Anonymous or on your own. But sobriety is the first and most important goal.
Other interventions are important to consider after becoming sober, such as to:
- Ensure you’re eating a balanced diet, especially foods rich in Vitamin E (sunflower seeds, almonds, cooked spinach, canned pumpkin, etc.) and Vitamin B (beans, poultry, fish, soy, etc.).
- Consult your doctor about supplementing your diet with magnesium, calcium, and/or carnitine to improve muscle health.
- Consider physical therapy or splinting to help with muscle recovery.
While alcoholic myopathy is a dangerous and prevalent side-effect of alcoholism, it’s important to remember that the symptoms are recognizable, and the condition itself is treatable. Consider it another reason to pursue sobriety and enjoy a stronger, healthier body.
“Alcohol’s Effects on the Body.” Alcohol & Your Health. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. 28 August 2016. <https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/alcohols-effects-body>.
“Alcohol Alert.” Publications and Media. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, October 1993. 28 August 2016. <http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa22.htm>.
“Alcoholic Neuropathy.” Health Guide. New York Times, 28 May 2013. 28 August 2016. <http://www.nytimes.com/health/guides/disease/alcoholic-neuropathy/overview.html>.
“Beyond Hangovers: Understanding Alcohol’s Impact On Your Health.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, October 2015. 28 August 2016. <http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/Hangovers/beyondHangovers.pdf>.
“Calcium.” Health Information. National Institutes of Health, 1 June 2016. 28 August 2016. <https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-HealthProfessional/>.
“Carnitine.” Health Information. National Institutes of Health, 10 May 2013. 28 August 2016. <https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Carnitine-HealthProfessional/>.
“Chronic Physical Effects of Alcoholism.” The Distance Learning Center for Addiction Studies, 15 June 2006. 28 August 2016. <http://www.dlcas.com/MAAP/Chronic_Alcoholism.pdf>.
“Food Sources of Vitamin E.” The Nutrition Source. Harvard School of Public Health. 28 August 2016. <https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/food-sources-of-vitamin-e/>.
Lieber, Charles S., M.D., M.A.C.P. “Relationships Between Nutrition, Alcohol Use, and Liver Disease.” Alcohol Research and Health. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2003. 28 August 2016. <http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh27-3/220-231.pdf>.
“Magnesium.” Health Information. National Institutes of Health, 11 February 2016. 28 August 2016. <https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Magnesium-HealthProfessional/>.
Nicolás, José M., et. al. “Influence of nutritional status on alcoholic myopathy.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, August 2003. 28 August 2016. <http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/78/2/326.full>.
Preedy, VR., et al. “Alcoholic skeletal muscle myopathy: definitions, features, contribution of neuropathy, impact and diagnosis.” European Journal of Neurology. US National Library of Medicine, November 2001. 28 August 2016. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11784353>.
“Scientists figure out how vitamin E keeps muscles healthy.” Medical College of Georgia at Georgia Regents University. EurkAlert, 19 May 2015. 28 August 2016. <http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-05/mcog-sfo_1051915.php>.
Singh, S., et. al. “Acute alcoholic myopathy, rhabdomyolysis and acute renal failure : a case report.” Neurology India. The University of Queensland, 29 September 2015. 28 August 2016. <https://espace.library.uq.edu.au/view/UQ:265116/UQ265116_OA.pdf>.
“Three of the B Vitamins: Folate, Vitamin B6, and Vitamin B12.” The Nutrition Source. Harvard School of Public Health. 28 August 2016. <https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/vitamin-b/>.