Complications of Alcoholism

The medical effects of alcoholism can be serious to the point where they can significantly alter the quality of life and shorten the life of the alcoholic.

The social complications of alcohol are obvious and include the disruption to family life with verbal and physical abuse of children and wife/husband, poor performance at work and repeated loss of jobs or failure to gain promotion, loss of friends and chastisement from relatives, the physical risks of drink-driving and being injured in falls or industrial accidents, and the increased risk of eventual suicide.

  • Cirrhosis is hardening of the liver. The soft normal liver tissue is replaced by firm scar tissue that is unable to process the waste products of the body adequately, allowing them to build up in the blood stream. The other vital actions of the liver in converting and storing food products and producing chemicals essential to the body are also inhibited. This can lead to an inability to clot blood properly and an increased tendency to bleed and bruise. As a result, fatal bleeding into or around the brain can occur more easily after a fall in alcoholics. The spider-like fine red blood vessels that occur on the skin of many alcoholics is another effect.
  • Brain damage can cause depression, irrational behavior and a form of insanity known as the Wernicke-Korsakoff psychosis. These conditions are related to vitamin deficiencies caused by an inadequate diet while on alcoholic binges.
  • Damage to the nerves supplying the rest of the body can also occur, and result in a condition known as peripheral neuropathy, which causes muscle cramps, pins and needles sensations and muscle pains.
  • Degeneration of the cerebellum (the part of the brain that is at the back of the head) caused by alcoholism can cause permanent uncoordination, difficulties in walking and performing simple tasks.
  • The fetal alcohol syndrome occurs when a pregnant woman is an alcoholic and her child is born damaged by the alcohol she has consumed. The forms of damage include an underweight baby, mental retardation, heart defects and behavioral problems. Breech births are more common in alcoholic mothers, as the baby moves around less, and may not turn into the correct position.

Treatment of Alcoholism

Support for the patient from family, friends, therapists and doctors is essential. Total abstinence from alcohol is the goal to be achieved, and not 'controlled drinking'. It is too easy to relapse from a so-called controlled state, and alcoholics must stop drinking completely to be cured. Alcoholics Anonymous, church groups and similar support organizations, doctors who specialize in treating alcoholics, and specialized clinics where alcoholics can be admitted, all play a role. The level of intervention required is best assessed by the family doctor, as the requirements of a problem drinker differ from those of an alcohol addict.

At the time of diagnosis, a complete physical examination and blood tests should be ordered by the doctor to assess the severity of the condition. Sedatives and other drugs should not be used as a replacement for alcohol, but may be briefly necessary in controlled dosages to overcome a crisis or to ease the symptoms of withdrawal.

Aversion therapy by psychiatrists or psychologists will teach alcoholics to avoid alcohol as they learn to associate unpleasant stimuli, triggered by the therapist, with the taking of alcohol. There are drugs that will cause severe vomiting if alcohol is taken. It must be used with the consent of the patient and not secretively, as serious consequences could result. The drug is taken regularly for weeks or months as a disincentive to drinking. The patient is given small amounts of alcohol by the doctor after starting the medication to demonstrate what may occur, and then the patient merely reports every few weeks for physical and blood tests to ensure s/he is following the regime correctly and without side effects.

A good diet is essential in alcoholics, as they are often malnourished. Vitamin supplements, particularly vitamins B and C, are necessary in the early stages of recovery. It has been reasonably suggested that thiamine (a B-group vitamin) should be added to beer to prevent some of the brain damage caused by alcohol.

Unfortunately, many of the complications of alcoholism (such as cirrhosis and brain damage) are permanent and do not respond to any treatment, and may result in the need for long-term medical care. The support of family, Alcoholics Anonymous and doctors will be required for many years to obtain a successful outcome.

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Sam Montana
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Posted on Dec 31, 2009