What is Crippling Alcoholism?


Author: Thomas Roth

Last Updated: 11/15/2021

Crippling alcoholism (high-functioning alcoholism) is used to describe someone who can't function properly due to alcohol consumption. Crippling alcoholism develops over time and begins as alcohol abuse disorder (AUD). When people continue to consume large amounts of alcohol over long periods the condition progresses to crippling alcoholism. 

What are the Characteristics of a High-Functioning Alcoholic

A high-functioning alcoholic is someone who doesn't suffer from the traditional effects of AUD. High-functioning alcoholics can perform most tasks well and it's harder to notice the symptoms of alcoholism and alcoholism-related conditions.

That said, the characteristics of high-functioning alcoholics are as follows:

  • Avoiding input and criticism of drinking habits 

  • Being middle-aged 

  • Blacking out due to alcohol consumption 

  • Not fitting the image of an alcoholic (being well put together)

  • Hiding alcohol habits 

  • Having alcohol during work hours 

  • Having alcohol every day

  • Drinking and driving

  • Using alcohol as a reward system

  • Having a high alcohol tolerance 

  • Obsessing over when the next drink is 

  • Trying to drink less but ultimately failing

  • Being someone who is successful and pays bills/handles responsibilities even though alcohol is consumed in dangerous amounts 

While high-functioning alcoholics appear normal, it's important to understand the warning signs so that you or a loved one can seek help when needed. High-functioning alcoholics still have elevated health risks.

What are the Causes of Crippling Alcoholism?

Crippling alcoholism is caused by a combination of poor alcohol habits like drinking during a young age and using alcohol as a reward system. When these factors are combined alcoholism progresses from AUD to crippling alcoholism.

Here are some of the common causes of crippling alcoholism:

  • Drinking at an early age

  • Drinking alcohol every day 

  • Binge drinking 

  • Having co-occurring mental health disorders 

  • Drinking to cope with stress

  • Drinking to cope with grief 

  • Drinking to cope with mental health conditions 

Crippling alcoholism can develop for many reasons and more often than not they depend on the person.

What are the Risk Factors of Crippling Alcoholism?

Crippling alcoholism has many risk factors that contribute to developing the condition. For example, binge drinking increases the risk of developing crippling alcoholism. Still, many factors vary from person to person.

Here are some of the most common risk factors of crippling alcoholism:

  • Co-occurring mental health disorders 

  • Drinking at an early

  • Binge drinking (more than 5 drinks in 2 hours for men, more than 4 drinks in 2 hours for women)

  • Lack of access to emotional support 

  • Stressful home or work environment 

  • Family history of AUD

  • Frequently combining alcohol and other medications

These are a handful of risk factors but the list goes on.

What are the Symptoms of Crippling Alcoholism?

Crippling alcoholism comes with many symptoms that can lead to bodily harm and loss of life.

These symptoms are:

  • Chronic pancreatitis 

  • Liver disease and failure

  • Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome 

  • Esophagus damage 

  • Alcoholic Cardiomyopathy 

  • Chronic brain damage

Below we break down the harms, treatments options, and diagnosis options for each symptom.

1. Chronic pancreatitis

Chronic pancreatitis occurs when damage is done to the pancreas through alcohol or smoking. The condition causes damage to the gland through fibrosis, so even when inflammation heals, the gland remains damaged. People who suffer from chronic pancreatitis can experience episodes of acute pancreatitis, which needs to be treated through lifestyle and diet changes. The condition is painful and only 45% of people survive after 20 years of developing the condition.

There are no cures for chronic pancreatitis. While the symptoms can be treated and managed by diet and lifestyle, once the gland is damaged beyond repair it doesn't heal. Therefore, prevention is the best way to make sure chronic pancreatitis doesn't develop.

2. Liver disease and failure

Crippling alcoholism leads to liver disease and liver failure. The liver is responsible for breaking down alcohol within the body, so liver cells incur the most damage from alcohol. Cell damage can lead to scar tissue developing (cirrhosis), fatty tissue building up, and liver failure. That said, all of these ailments can lead to liver failure, jaundice, and eventually death.

Liver disease and failure are preventable and treatable. While scar tissue can't be removed from the liver, new scar tissue can be prevented and fat can be burned off with diet and lifestyle changes. People who want to recover from this condition also need to stop drinking.

3. Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome 

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a brain condition that develops when someone has deficiencies in vitamin B1. People with crippling alcoholism develop the condition because the body becomes malnourished over time and fails to absorb food properly. It's for these reasons that non-alcoholics who have poor absorption can also develop the condition. Symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome include memory loss and permanent brain damage in the area of the brain responsible for memory.

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome doesn't have a positive prognosis. While symptoms like loss of coordination can be treated and slowed, the condition can't be cured. People who suffer from the condition can also develop other brain disorders like dementia. Diet and lifestyle changes can improve a patient's outlook.

4. Esophagus damage 

Crippling alcoholism damages the esophagus because it's the area of the body that gets exposed to alcohol first. Alcohol use can cause inflammation in the esophagus which can lead to life-threatening complications and swelling. Alcohol can also cause irreversible damage that leads to esophageal cancers, scarring, and GERD.

Most esophagus damage can be healed over time (2-4 weeks). That said, more complicated conditions like esophageal cancers might never heal and can lead to death. Treatment for these conditions consists of cancer medications like chemotherapy and radiation or anti-inflammatory medications.

5. Alcoholic Cardiomyopathy 

Alcoholic cardiomyopathy is a serious condition that changes the heart's ability to function properly. Long-term alcohol consumption damages the heart muscle and prevents it from efficiently pumping blood to the rest of your body. These issues can lead to heart attacks, strokes, and organ failures.

While alcoholic cardiomyopathy is a serious condition it can be treated. People who stop consuming alcohol for 18 months have fully healed from the condition. In other cases, patients may be able to slow the condition's progression or prevent the condition from getting worse at all. While one of the most serious side effects of alcoholism, it's one of the most treatable.

6. Chronic brain damage

Crippling alcoholism leads to chronic brain damage in most patients. Long-term alcohol consumption causes tissues in the brain to break down, especially in patients that suffer from Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Chronic brain damage from alcoholism can increase the risk of stroke, dementia, and other mental health conditions.

Depending on the type of brain damage, chronic brain damage caused by crippling alcoholism can't always be healed. That said, some treatments can slow its progression and prevent people from having strokes and other life-altering complications.

What are the Consequences of Crippling Alcoholism?

Crippling alcoholism can have several life-altering consequences that can lead to legal, health, and personal issues.

Consequences of crippling alcoholism include:

  • Legal troubles

  • Financial struggles

  • Mental health conditions 

  • Co-occurring mental health disorders

  • Co-occurring addictions

  • Problems with relationships 

  • Brain damage

  • Liver failure

  • Heart damage

  • Increased risk of heart attack and stroke

  • Changes in blood pressure

  • Increased risk of diabetes 

While many of these consequences can be prevented and reversed with proper alcoholism treatment, some are irreversible.

What are the Differences Between Crippling Alcoholism and Regular Alcoholism?

The difference between crippling alcoholism and regular alcoholism is the length of time that someone has been an alcoholic. Crippling alcoholism also comes with higher risks for health problems, mental health complications, and relationship problems. Crippling alcoholism can also cause someone to become a functional alcoholic, which increases health risks and increase the risk of not seeking treatment.

What are the Stages of Alcohol Use Disorder 

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) has several stages that progress as someone continues to consume alcohol.

These stages are:

  • Stage 1: Stage 1 begins with binge drinking and frequently drinking. During this stage, people may begin to develop a dependence on the euphoria felt by drinking.

  • Stage 2: Stage 2 consists of increased drinking and people start to drink every weekend or as an excuse to hang out with friends. During this period, the brain becomes more dependent on the feelings felt from drinking and people have an increased risk of developing alcoholism.

  • Stage 3: The third stage begins when the brain becomes dependent on drinking. People experience uncontrollable urges to drink and encounter social issues and relationship problems.

  • Stage 4: Stage 4 begins when someone becomes fully dependent on alcohol. During the 4th stage, people will experience symptoms of withdrawal when they stop drinking, which causes them to consume even more alcohol.

  • Stage 5: Stage 5 is full-fledged alcoholism and during this stage, it progresses to an addiction. Alcohol becomes physically craved and people develop compulsive behaviors.

These stages are the common progressions of alcoholism but everyone will go through them at a different pace. Moreover, the symptoms during each stage may vary.

Find Help for Your Alcohol Addiction

Finding help for your alcohol addiction begins with a phone call. Reaching out to one of our featured addiction treatment centers can set you on the path to recovery. You can also seek out local Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) groups in your area. These groups provide you with an accountability partner and an outlet to discuss how alcoholism has impacted the life of you or a loved one. 

Thomas Roth
Lead Editor

Thomas has been working in the substance abuse industry for over 3 years and he's made it his mission to help those in need. Tom started out by writing content to help people find addiction treatment centers near their location. Once he understood the value in the words he wrote Tom shifted to outreach, editing, and content creation. If nothing else, Tom wants to see those who struggle with Alcohol abuse disorder recover.