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  • Updated 04.29.2024
  • Released 07.20.1994
  • Expires For CME 04.29.2027

Alcoholic myopathy



Alcohol can produce several myopathic disorders, including acute alcoholic myopathy with or without myoglobinuria, hypokalemic myopathy, chronic atrophic myopathy, and cardiomyopathy (127; 101; 176; 83; 90). Acute alcoholic myopathy (also termed alcoholic rhabdomyolysis and acute alcoholic necrotizing myopathy) is an uncommon syndrome of abrupt muscle injury that typically occurs in malnourished chronic alcoholics following a binge or in the first days of alcohol withdrawal; experimental studies have demonstrated that both alcohol and nutritional factors are necessary to produce this syndrome (16; 83; 90). Severity ranges from asymptomatic transient elevation of creatine kinase to frank rhabdomyolysis with myoglobinuria. Although, in most instances, full recovery occurs within days to weeks, death may occur in the setting of acute renal failure and hyperkalemia. Chronic alcoholic myopathy is a gradually evolving syndrome of proximal weakness, atrophy, and gait disturbance that frequently complicates years of alcohol abuse. Muscle strength correlates with lifetime consumption of ethanol. Recovery occurs if alcohol is avoided, but the timeframe of improvement is weeks to months, in contrast to the rapid recovery typical of acute alcoholic myopathy. Pathogenic mechanisms include impaired gene expression and protein synthesis as well as increased oxidative damage and apoptosis.

Key points

• Acute alcoholic myopathy develops suddenly in the context of binge drinking and is characterized by painful muscle weakness and myonecrosis.

• Chronic alcoholic myopathy develops gradually and is characterized by painless weakness of proximal muscles.

• Recovery occurs if alcohol is avoided, but the time to recovery varies from rapid (days to weeks) with the acute form to protracted (weeks to months) with the chronic form.

Historical note and terminology

In 1822, American physician James Jackson (1777-1867) concluded that neuropathic lesions could not explain all of the signs in alcoholics and suggested that their muscles were also abnormal (65). Nevertheless, identification of muscular weakness as a complication of alcohol abuse is generally attributed to Swedish physician Magnus Huss (1807-1890) in his treatise Alcoholismus Chronicus published in 1849 (36). Subsequent 19th century reports of "alcoholic paralysis" include instances of reversible weakness that likely represent alcoholic muscle disease (35; 62). Several pathologic reports appeared in the late 19th century, particularly in Germany (120).

Modern recognition of the link between alcohol abuse and myopathy and the differentiation of acute and chronic alcoholic muscle disorders dates to the 1950s and 1960s, particularly by Swedish investigators Ragnar Hed and Karl Ekbom (59; 60; 43; 36). These investigators described two major syndromes: (1) acute alcoholic myopathy in which myonecrosis develops suddenly in the context of binge drinking; and (2) chronic alcoholic myopathy, in which weakness of proximal muscles develops gradually. In addition, alcoholic individuals without muscle-related symptoms were found to have electromyographic and histologic evidence of myopathy (36). In the late 1960s American internist George Thomas Perkoff (1926-2012) and colleagues at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis described individuals with chronic alcohol abuse who developed an acute reversible muscular syndrome with dramatic muscle cramps, tender muscles, weakness, variable myoglobinuria, increased creatine kinase blood levels, and a reduced ability to increase serum lactic acid levels in response to ischemic exercise (129; 128). Subsequent studies have linked alcoholic myopathy directly to the injurious effects of ethanol and acetaldehyde (164). The molecular basis of the myopathic effects of alcohol has remained elusive.

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