The effect of drugs and alcohol on the feet

Hangovers, impaired judgement, sometimes organ damage; these are just some of the effects of excessive alcohol consumption that you might already be familiar with. Prolonged alcohol and drug use can cause major health complications for the body’s most vital organs – especially the liver, kidneys, bladder, and stomach.

But most people neglect the fact that drug addiction can also be extremely damaging to the feet and other lower limbs. With April being alcohol awareness month, this month’s blog will explore the surprising ways alcohol and substance abuse can have a knock-on effect on your body.

Alcohol

Chronic alcohol abuse can cause damage to health in many ways. It is a known contributor to numerous illnesses such as high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes, to name only a few. Alcohol also poses risks to foot health. Alcohol-related falls can lead to foot and ankle injuries, including sprained ankles and broken bones. Many people can also develop alcoholic neuropathy. Alcoholic neuropathy is characterized by numbness, loss of sensation, tingling, pain, weakness, and limited mobility.

Nerve damage from this condition is usually permanent. Your symptoms are likely to get worse if you don’t stop drinking. This could lead to disability, chronic pain, and damage to your arms and legs. However, if caught early enough, you can minimize the damage from alcoholic neuropathy. Avoiding alcohol and improving your diet can sometimes lead to a moderate to full recovery.

Cocaine

Cocaine is a vasoconstrictor, which makes the heart pump faster while narrowing the blood vessels. Long-term use can lead to atherosclerosis and coronary artery disease, or hardening of the arteries or capillaries. Circulation is therefore reduced in cocaine users, and leads to a risk of peripheral arterial disease and in more severe cases, amputation.

Cocaine use can also contribute to the formation of fibrous tissue in the skin, limb ischaemia and neuropathy.

Cocaine was traditionally used as an anaesthetic. As with alcohol, overuse can cause permanent damage to the nerves, which is irreversible.

Cigarettes

Tobacco causes plaque to build up in the arteries, make the artery walls harden and narrows your blood vessels. As blood vessels shrink, it becomes very hard for blood to circulate in the tiny capillaries of the legs and feet, depriving your limbs of oxygen and leading to peripheral arterial disease (PAD).

Raynaud’s disease is an uncomfortable condition caused by the contraction of blood vessels in the extremities. Patients with this condition may have pale feet with white or blue toes, and their feet may be cold or numb. Cigarette smoking can both cause and worsen symptoms of Raynaud’s disease.

Smoking also delays the development of healthy bone tissue, causing the slow breakdown of bones known as osteoporosis. If your skeleton is unable to create new bone tissue, it becomes brittle and weak, making it likely to fracture. As your feet carry all of the pressure of your weight and movement, the chances of a broken bone in the feet and ankles increases.

Cigarette users can also develop a condition coined “Smoker’s corn”. The vasoconstriction effect of nicotine contributes to increased callus formation by causing a decrease in blood supply and blood flow to the tissue, which ends in connective tissue reduction, fat pad atrophy, and more bone to skin contact. These corns are usually particularly deep, painful and difficult to treat.

Effects of drug and alcohol use in the media

HOLLYOAKS: A recent storyline showed character Sid having a partial leg amputation after Ketamine use caused him to collapse and he was in a road traffic accident.

AMY WINEHOUSE: In 2007, pictures of singer Amy Winehouse were released showing signs of alleged drug use with wounds and blood between her toes.

OZZY OSBORNE: In 2020, Ozzy Osborne revealed he suffers from Parkinson’s and nerve damage. Osborne had a public history of drug and alcohol use throughout his career.

If you are concerned about alcohol or drug misuse, we encourage you to seek support. Talk to FRANK (National Drugs Helpline): 0800 77 66 00 or visit www.talktofrank.com.

If you have any concerns regarding poor sensation in your feet or vascular concerns we are able to perform tests on site to check your neurovascular status. Contact us on 020 8693 6000 to book an appointment.

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Royal College of Podiatry HCPC registered Podiatrist