An estimated 14.5 million Americans over the age of 12 had alcohol use disorder (AUD) in 2019. It’s a condition that’s affecting a growing number of people, and despite increased awareness, many are unaware of how this disease affects the body over the long term.
Let’s look at what makes alcoholism a disease, how it affects the body, its connection with joint pain and the effects of withdrawal.
What Makes Alcoholism A Disease?
Although there is some debate about what is considered a chronic disease, many medical experts agree that alcoholism is a chronic condition.
Chronic disease is often defined as a condition that:
- Can’t be prevented by a vaccine
- Lasts for an extended period of time
- Has multiple causes
- Requires ongoing treatment
- Can’t be cured by medication
Alcoholism fits all of those criteria:
- It can last for months, years or a lifetime. Many experts also agree that people may experience cravings for the rest of their lives, so recovery is a lifelong process.
- Often, there are multiple factors that lead to alcoholism. Those factors may be hereditary, trauma-related, or a combination of these factors and more.
- Medication may help with the withdrawal stage and managing cravings, but it’s not a cure by any means.
- Those who are in recovery often require ongoing treatment and support.
Other medical experts define the disease as a mental obsession that leads to the physical compulsion to drink.
That mental obsession is largely caused by the changes in the brain from alcohol use.
Is Alcoholism a Brain Disease?
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines alcohol use disorder, or AUD, as a brain disease.
Because alcoholism changes the way your brain operates. It can cause compulsive behavior and intense cravings. Alcoholism can also affect your critical thinking and ability to make rational decisions.
Repeated alcohol use changes key areas of the brain linked to learning, pleasure, decision-making, stress and self-control.
A report from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism discusses brain changes found on CT scans of those who suffer from chronic alcohol use. These scans show atrophy (or wasting away) of several areas of the brain, including those related to behavior, memory and executive function.
Other scans have found that alcoholism can affect the brain stem, leading to issues with emotional regulation and problem-solving.
As you can see, alcoholism is very much a brain disease – both literally and figuratively.
How Does Alcoholism Affect the Body?
Long-term use of alcohol affects the body in many ways. Some of alcohol’s physical effects include:
Alcoholism can cause joint pain in some individuals. Although the link between alcohol and joint pain is not well understood, it is believed that because alcohol depletes water and nutrients, it can cause inflammation. That inflammation can lead to joint pain.
One study on mice also found that there may be a link between chronic alcohol exposure and a greater risk of developing osteoarthritis, which causes joint pain.
Chronic alcohol use can cause inflammation in the pancreas, which can eventually lead to pancreatitis. Pancreatitis can cause abdominal pain and other issues.
The pancreas regulates your body’s response to glucose and the use of insulin. If the pancreas isn’t functioning properly because of pancreatitis, it can lead to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) or hyperglycemia (too much sugar in the blood).
Damage to the Central Nervous System
Continued and long-term exposure to alcohol can damage the central nervous system, which can cause:
- Tingling or numbness in the hands and feet
- Difficulty thinking clearly or making rational decisions
- Memory issues
- Trouble regulating emotions
Weakened Immune System
Heavy drinking can affect your immune system, making it harder for your body to fight off illness.
There’s a link between heavy drinking and tuberculosis and pneumonia. The WHO estimates that 8.1% of tuberculosis cases are attributed to alcohol use.
Medical experts have also linked alcohol use with a higher risk of several types of cancer, including those of the throat, mouth, colon and liver.
Is Alcohol Withdrawal Painful?
Alcohol withdrawal can be painful. Every individual is different and will experience withdrawal in their own way. Depending on the individual and the severity of the alcoholism, withdrawal can be dangerous or life-threatening.
Alcohol is a depressant, which means that it changes the way your brain works. When you drink, your body produces more GABA, which makes you feel more relaxed and calmer. But it also causes your body to produce less glutamate, which makes you feel excitable.
The body tries to make up for this effect by producing more glutamate and less GABA. Unfortunately, when you stop drinking, your brain struggles to catch up, and you feel the effects of this imbalance. That’s why withdrawal often causes tremors and anxiety.
Mild symptoms of withdrawal can also include:
- Mood changes
- Nausea and vomiting
More severe symptoms can include:
- Mental confusion
Alcohol withdrawal can sometimes be fatal, especially if you try to go through the process alone.
Because you can’t predict how your body will respond to withdrawal, it’s best to go through this stage under the supervision of a medical professional.
Does Naltrexone Really Work for Alcoholism?
Naltrexone is a drug that was initially used to help treat opioid and heroin dependence. Those who were in recovery found that naltrexone helped eliminate the pleasure of using opioids, which made them less compelled to use the drug.
Similar effects have been observed in those with alcoholism. Although more research is needed, it is believed that naltrexone can make alcohol less rewarding. Because alcohol no longer brings pleasure, people are less motivated to continue drinking.
It’s important to note that while naltrexone can help reduce the motivation to drink, it is not a cure for alcoholism. Like any other drug, it should only be taken under the supervision of a medical professional.
Alcoholism affects the body in numerous ways, from joint pain to changes in the brain and central nervous system. Withdrawal can sometimes be painful, but drugs like naltrexone may help with the recovery process.
If you or a loved one are suffering from alcoholism, help is out there. Rehab is the first step to recovery.