Erectile dysfunction as a sentinel symptom of cardiovascular autonomic neuropathy in heavy drinkers

Sabrina Ravaglia, Enrico Marchioni, Alfredo Costa, Maurizia Maurelli, Arrigo Moglia

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Because autonomic neuropathy (AN) is not routinely assessed in chronic alcoholism, its features and relationship with other disease parameters remain undefined. The very existence of true alcohol-related autonomic dysfunction, in the absence of alcoholic hepatopathy, is even controversial. We aimed this study at evaluating the frequency and pattern of AN in a population of heavy drinkers without liver dysfunction. We also investigated the putative risk factors for AN as well as its relationship to peripheral neuropathy (PN). Autonomic function was evaluated in 70 detoxified alcoholics and 70 well-matched controls by heart-rate response to deep breathing, heart-rate response to standing from lying position, and blood pressure response to standing up. PN was assessed by electroneurography (ENG). Detailed information about sensorimotor and autonomic symptoms, nutritional status, and parameters reflecting alcohol intake were recorded. No patients showed signs of caloric/protein malnutrition. PN was found in 74% and AN (abnormal test results in two of three tests performed) in 26%; abnormalities in at least one autonomic test were found in 62%. All patients with PN were symptomatic, mainly due to sensory disturbances. In line with this, ENG abnormalities were more evident at sural nerves. AN was symptomatic in 10 of 18 patients, and its sole clinical expression was impotence: indeed, the pattern of autonomic involvement was mainly parasympathetic. AN did not correlate with PN, nor with any parameter reflecting the amount of alcohol intake; only performances on heart-rate response to standing from lying position were related to the duration of abuse. The lack of correlation between PN and AN may suggest a different pathophysiology for these two complications. Unlike PN, AN is often asymptomatic. Among symptomatic patients (55%), erectile dysfunction seems to be the sole symptom, in line with the higher degree of parasympathetic damage.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)209-214
Number of pages6
JournalJournal of the Peripheral Nervous System
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2004


  • Alcoholism
  • Autonomic neuropathy
  • Heavy drinkers
  • Peripheral neuropathy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Neurology
  • Neuroscience(all)


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