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Alcohol shakes - a sign of addiction?

Alcohol shakes are a sign of alcohol withdrawal, where the part of your brain controlling your muscles reacts to the alcohol leaving your body.

With alcohol having a depressant effect, heavy consumption can lead to the brain becoming used to a reduced level of stimulation. As alcohol then leaves the body, the brain becomes flooded with more activity, which results in the nervous system becoming hyperactive, causing you to shake. It can occur as quickly as eight hours after your last drink.

If you are experiencing alcohol shakes and other withdrawal symptoms, this could be a sign that you have a physical dependency on alcohol. With your body accustomed to having alcohol in your system, cutting back or cutting down may be causing these sensations.

If you have three or more of the following symptoms of alcohol dependence, you may require medical treatment:

  1. A strong, sometimes overpowering desire or compulsion to drink alcohol
  2. Difficulty in controlling the amount taken
  3. Withdrawal symptoms mentioned below
  4. Evidence of tolerance, which means that you need more and more alcohol to achieve the same effect originally produced by lower amounts of alcohol
  5. Neglecting other interests and spending larger amounts of time drinking or obtaining alcohol, or trying to recover from its effects
  6. Persisting with drinking alcohol despite clear harm, for example liver problems, depressed mood or memory problems

It is important to reduce and stop drinking in a safe and controlled manner when you are addicted to alcohol. Some withdrawal symptoms are severe and even fatal, so it is always recommended that you seek medical advice and support.

What are other signs and symptoms of alcohol withdrawal?

Alongside shakes and tremors, physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:

  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Hallucinations (in severe circumstances)
  • Seizures (in severe circumstances)

Psychological symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Confusion
  • Insomnia and fatigue

Withdrawal symptoms vary from person to person, and can depend on factors such as how much you have been drinking and how quickly you stop or cut down.

Alcohol shakes can be an indication that withdrawal is at the point where medical intervention is needed.

Shakes vs delirium tremens

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can vary widely. Delirium tremens is an extremely severe form of alcohol withdrawal, which can cause seizures and can occasionally be fatal. It is usually caused by reduction or complete withdrawal from alcohol, after a period of heavy drinking. This dangerous condition starts with insomnia, tremors and sometimes seizures. Following that, there is clouding of consciousness, disorientation and confusion, vivid hallucinations, and uncontrollable whole body tremors. It can develop very quickly, and a person with delirium tremens needs immediate medical care.

Some people with alcohol withdrawal also develop psychosis, where they can suffer from paranoia, morbid jealousy or even chronic auditory hallucinations, requiring medical treatment. Chronic use of alcohol can also lead to serious memory problems, requiring medical treatment.

Alcohol shakes can be an indication that delirium tremens may happen. It is always recommended that alcohol withdrawal takes place as part of a medically assisted withdrawal detoxification process, so that the right care and support can be provided when it is needed.

Detoxification and rehabilitation

Even without delirium tremens, a medically assisted alcohol detox - where you are surrounded by medically trained professionals - can help to mitigate and manage symptoms. Depending on the nature and severity of your alcohol withdrawal, you may be given prescription medication to help you too. Other than medication for reducing or preventing withdrawals, there is medication to help you stay abstinent from alcohol in the future, which you can choose from, once abstinence is established.

At Priory, you stay at one of our hospitals during your detoxification process, which typically lasts between 7 and 10 days. During this process, you also have the opportunity to take part in an Addiction Treatment Programme, which includes intensive individual and group addiction therapy to help you recognise the source of your addictive behaviours and learn strategies to help you stay abstinent.

By properly managing the detoxification and rehabilitation process, you can make sure that you are fully equipped for a life without alcohol.

This page was reviewed by Dr Tanushree Sarma, Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Chelmsford, in January 2019, and is scheduled to be reviewed again in January 2021.

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