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January 1995

Autonomic and Peripheral Neuropathies in Patients With Chronic Alcoholism: A Dose-Related Toxic Effect of Alcohol

Author Affiliations

From the Alcohol Unit, Departments of Internal Medicine (Drs Monforte, Estruch, Nicolás, Villalta, and Urbano-Marquez) and Neurology (Dr Valls-Solé), Hospital Clinic, University of Barcelona (Spain).

Arch Neurol. 1995;52(1):45-51. doi:10.1001/archneur.1995.00540250049012

Objective:  To assess autonomic and peripheral nervous system function in patients with chronic alcoholism.

Design:  A cross-sectional study.

Patients:  A consecutive sample of 107 alcoholic patients and 61 controls.

Main Outcome Measure:  For autonomic assessment, heart rate variations during deep breathing and Valsalva maneuver and on standing were measured. Blood pressure response to standing up and to sustained handgrip were also evaluated. For assessment of the peripheral nervous system, an electrophysiologic examination was performed.

Results:  Alcoholic patients exhibited reduced heart rate variability compared with controls (P<.01, on all parasympathetic tests), whereas no differences in the mean values of the blood pressure responses between both groups were found. Twenty-six patients (24.3%) had criteria of autonomic neuropathy, and 34 (32%) had electrophysiologic criteria of peripheral neuropathy. None of the controls exhibited criteria of autonomic neuropathy, and only one had criteria of peripheral neuropathy. The estimated total lifetime dose of alcohol correlated inversely with the parasympathetic indexes (r=−.48 to −.51; P<.001 on all parasympathetic tests) and the sensory potential amplitudes of upper and lower limbs (r=−.43; P<.001, both limbs). Finally, a significant correlation between autonomic and peripheral neuropathies was observed (P=.01). By contrast, these lesions were not related to age, nutritional status, or other alcohol-related diseases.

Conclusions:  Autonomic and peripheral neuropathies are common among hospitalized alcoholic patients. Alcohol appears to be toxic to autonomic and peripheral nerves in a dose-dependent manner.

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