Alcohol shakes and tremors - a sign of alcoholism?

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

Why do I get the shakes after drinking alcohol?

Alcohol is a depressant, slowing down parts of the brain and interfering with mood-regulating chemicals. This means that heavy drinking gets the brain used to a reduced level of stimulation. As alcohol leaves the body of a heavy drinker, the brain is flooded with more activity, the nervous system becomes hyperactive, and you may experience alcohol tremors or shakes. The shakes can happen as quickly as 8 hours after your last drink.

Even if you don’t consider yourself to be an alcoholic, you might be misusing alcohol in other ways, even if you consider it to be recreational. This can also cause the shakes. Drinking a large amount of alcohol in one session, known as binge drinking, can result in ‘hangover shakes’. You may feel your hands or your whole body shaking, depending on how much you’ve consumed.

If you're experiencing alcohol shakes and other withdrawal symptoms, this could be a sign that you have a physical dependency on alcohol. When you're so used to having alcohol in your system, reducing how much you drink will commonly cause you to experience the shakes.

Symptoms of alcoholism contributing to alcohol tremors

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

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

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

Alcohol shakes and other signs of alcohol withdrawal

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

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

Psychological symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:

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

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

Alcohol shakes can indicate that you need to withdraw from alcohol more safely, with medical intervention to help you to recovery.

Alcohol 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's usually caused by reducing or completely stopping alcohol intake, after a period of heavy drinking. This dangerous condition starts with insomnia, tremors and sometimes seizures. Following that, your consciousness can feel clouded, you may be disorientated and confused, and you may have vivid hallucinations and uncontrollable alcohol 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, needing medical treatment. Chronic use of alcohol can also lead to serious memory problems.

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

Detoxification and rehabilitation

Even without delirium tremens, a medically assisted alcohol detox - where you're 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.

At Priory, you will 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're fully equipped for a life without alcohol.

Blog reviewed by Dr Tanushree Sarma (MBBS, MRCPsych, MSc), Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Chelmsford

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