Alcohol-related acute axonal polyneuropathy: a differential diagnosis of Guillain-Barré syndrome

Arch Neurol. 1998 Oct;55(10):1329-34. doi: 10.1001/archneur.55.10.1329.


Background: Chronic axonal polyneuropathy is a well-known clinical sequela of excessive alcohol consumption; however, acute axonal polyneuropathy related to alcohol abuse is less well recognized.

Objective: To describe alcohol-related acute axonal polyneuropathy in 5 chronic alcoholics who developed ascending flaccid tetraparesis and areflexia within 14 days.

Methods: Case series with clinical, laboratory, electrophysiological, and, in 1 patient, biopsy data.

Results: All 5 patients consumed a daily average of 250 g of alcohol, and 4 had lost a substantial amount of weight recently. Additional clinical features included painful paresthesia, myalgia, and glove and stocking-type sensory loss. Repeated cerebrospinal fluid examinations failed to show the marked increase of protein concentration with normal cell count typical of Guillain-Barré syndrome, although the protein level was mildly elevated in 1 patient. Blood laboratory findings were consistent with longstanding alcohol abuse. Compound muscle and sensory nerve action potentials were absent or reduced, while conduction velocities were normal or mildly reduced. Three to 4 weeks after onset, needle electromyography displayed moderate to severe fibrillations and positive sharp waves in addition to normal motor unit potentials, indicating an acute axonal polyneuropathy; this was confirmed by sural nerve biopsy in 1 patient.

Conclusions: Excluding other factors, we assume that in these patients the combination of alcohol abuse and malnutrition caused severe acute axonal polyneuropathy. Its distinction from Guillain-Barré syndrome is important because treatment requires balanced diet, vitamin supplementation, and abstinence from alcohol, while immunotherapy may not be indicated.

Publication types

  • Case Reports

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Adult
  • Ataxia / etiology
  • Axons / drug effects*
  • Axons / pathology
  • Biopsy
  • Demyelinating Diseases / pathology
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Ethanol / adverse effects*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Peripheral Nervous System Diseases / chemically induced*
  • Peripheral Nervous System Diseases / complications
  • Peripheral Nervous System Diseases / pathology
  • Polyradiculoneuropathy / pathology
  • Severity of Illness Index


  • Ethanol