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Somatosensory profiling of patients undergoing alcohol withdrawal: Do neuropathic pain and sensory loss represent a problem?

INTRODUCTION: Chronic heavy alcohol use is known to cause neurological complications such as peripheral neuropathy. Concerning the pathophysiology, few sural nerve and skin biopsy studies showed that small fibers might be selectively vulnerable to degeneration in alcohol-related peripheral neuropathy. Pain has rarely been properly evaluated in this pathology. The present study aims at assessing pain intensity, potential neuropathic characteristics as well as the functionality of both small and large nerve sensitive fibers.

METHODS: In this observational study, 27 consecutive adult patients, hospitalized for alcohol withdrawal and 13 healthy controls were recruited. All the participants underwent a quantitative sensory testing (QST) according to the standardized protocol of the German Research Network Neuropathic Pain, a neurological examination and filled standardized questionnaires assessing alcohol consumption and dependence as well as pain characteristics and psychological comorbidities.

RESULTS: Nearly half of the patients (13/27) reported pain. Yet, pain intensity was weak, leading to a low interference with daily life, and its characteristics did not support a neuropathic component. A functional impairment of small nerve fibers was frequently described, with thermal hypoesthesia observed in 52% of patients. Patients with a higher alcohol consumption over the last 2 years showed a greater impairment of small fiber function.

DISCUSSION: Patients report pain but it is however unlikely to be caused by peripheral neuropathy given the non-length-dependent distribution and the absence of neuropathic pain features. Chronic pain in AUD deserves to be better evaluated and managed as it represents an opportunity to improve long-term clinical outcomes, potentially participating to relapse prevention.

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