There are numerous physical and mental effects of alcohol abuse and alcoholism that extend beyond the potential for emergency situations like alcohol poisoning or accidents related to intoxication. The toxic effects of alcohol on the body contribute to damage in a variety of mental and physical abilities, and can, over time, result in serious disease that can turn an individual’s life upside down and require intensive medical intervention.
Far more than the simple lack of muscular coordination that is a regular symptom of consuming too much alcohol, alcoholic myopathy is a serious, debilitating condition that can hinder a person’s ability to fully participate in life, significantly impacting the ability to perform normal daily tasks and causing intense muscular pain. While many people are unaware that this condition even exists, it is common among those who abuse alcohol.
What Is Myopathy?
Myopathy is defined by the Cleveland Clinic Center for Continuing Education as a condition that results in loss of muscle strength or dysfunction of skeletal muscle, generally caused by abnormalities in function or metabolism of muscle cells. Myopathy can be caused by a number of conditions, including inherited or congenital diseases or disorders like muscular dystrophy and acquired conditions resulting from infection or ingestion of toxic agents.
Alcoholic myopathy is considered to be a toxic myopathy resulting from the body’s response to long-term and/or heavy exposure to alcohol. It can either be acute, after the individual has binged on alcohol, or chronic, developing over time with regular, heavy alcohol consumption. This makes alcoholism a major risk factor for an individual to develop this debilitating and often painful condition.
How Alcoholism Contributes to Myopathy
While alcoholic myopathy is still only partly understood, it appears that it could have a nutritional component. People who consume alcohol often experience malnutrition of various forms, as alcohol can hinder the body’s ability to absorb and use certain nutrients. A study from Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research has explored the similarities between alcoholic myopathy and vitamin D deficiency, and concludes that there is a connection.
Alcoholism has been shown to result in vitamin D deficiency in the body. Sometimes, this occurs as a result of the liver disease that is common among those who struggle with alcohol use disorder; however, liver disease is not necessary for the person to have difficulty absorbing vitamin D. In either case, the lack of vitamin D results in an inability for the body to properly use other nutrients like phosphorus in maintaining proper muscular cell function and metabolism, resulting in the muscles being unable to function properly or even, in some cases, wasting away.
Symptoms of Alcoholic Myopathy
The most basic symptoms of alcoholic myopathy, as described by the New England Journal of Medicine, are muscular weakness and tenderness or pain. This can manifest in the person being unable to do something as simple as standing up or climbing a staircase. In addition, the following symptoms may occur, as described by Healthline:
- Loss of muscle mass (atrophy)
- Twitches, tics, or muscle spasms
- Darkened urine
- Sensitivity to heat
A potential additional consequence and symptom of alcoholic myopathy is cardiomyopathy, or weakening of the heart muscle. This can lead to bigger complications later on, including heart disease.
When Does Alcoholic Myopathy Occur?
Approximately one-third of individuals who drink heavily on a regular basis will experience alcoholic myopathy, making it far more common than some people might think. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews indicates that about between 0.5 percent and 2 percent of individuals struggling with alcoholism experience acute alcoholic myopathy, while 200 individuals in 100,000 of the general population develop chronic alcoholic myopathy – more than any type of inherited myopathy.
Acute alcoholic myopathy can occur after consuming more than 4-5 alcoholic beverages in one sitting (within two hours). On the other hand, those who develop chronic myopathy generally do so slowly over the course of several weeks or even months of regular, heavy drinking, gradually losing muscle strength. In some cases, muscle twitching, pain, or atrophy will also occur with chronic alcoholic myopathy. Chronic myopathy can also result in occasional bouts of acute myopathy, with muscle pain and weakness and darkened urine occurring after the person binges on alcohol.
Long-Term Risks of Alcoholic Myopathy
As mentioned above, part of the risk of alcoholic myopathy is the development of cardiomyopathy, or weakness in the heart. Over time, cardiomyopathy thins the heart muscle, decreasing its ability to work properly. This, in turn, can lead to heart disease of various kinds, including:
- Heart failure
- Heart attack
Some research has also indicated a connection between liver damage and cardiomyopathy in people struggling with alcohol use disorders. A study from Hepatology showed that individuals with alcoholic cirrhosis who were still actively drinking were more likely to have some form of cardiomyopathy than those who had been alcoholic but were abstaining or those with cirrhosis that was not alcohol-related.
Is the Damage Reversible?
Neurology Medlink explains that alcoholic myopathy is reversible, whether it is acute or chronic. With an acute episode following a binge, the symptoms usually resolve within a week or two. Chronic myopathy, where damage is more severe, can take much longer to resolve, requiring weeks or even months for the muscles to recover function. In the case of cardiomyopathy, damage is only reversible up to a point. If the individual has already developed heart disease, this damage is not reversible and must be treated for the rest of the person’s life.
The way to reverse alcoholic myopathy is simple: abstain from alcohol. The sooner this remedy can be applied, the sooner recovery will occur, and the less likely it is that the more severe consequences, like cardiomyopathy, will occur. In addition, with continued abstinence from alcohol, and nutritional support and exercise, the individual should be able to fully recover muscular function as long as there hasn’t been too much atrophy.
Treating Alcoholism and Alcoholic Myopathy
Abstaining from alcohol is a major challenge for individuals who are struggling with alcoholism. Triggers and cravings can overwhelm a person’s ability to consider the consequences and result in the person drinking again. Because alcoholism is a chronic mental health disorder, it requires treatment for the person to maintain abstinence and avoid drinking, thereby being able to also receive treatment for alcoholic myopathy.
It is possible to recover from alcohol use disorders like alcoholism through rehab at a reputable, research-based treatment facility or program. Experts in addiction treatment can help individuals struggling with alcoholism learn new ways of coping with triggers and cravings, making it more likely that they can avoid relapse to alcohol use. This is achieved through a variety of program elements that are customized to the individual’s needs, including:
- Behavioral therapy
- Family therapy
- Peer support groups
- Nutritional guidance
- Exercise programs
- Motivational therapy and guidance
- Follow-up programs
With professional support and a commitment to sobriety, the individual can emerge from a treatment program with new tools and skills to avoid returning to alcohol use, making it possible to achieve recovery from acute or chronic myopathy and live a productive, healthier life.