Even Long-Sober Alcoholics Lack Balance

By Will Godfrey 09/20/11

Loss of balance and coordination caused by alcoholism is long-term, perhaps even permanent, say scientists.

You, on the other hand, can forget. Photo via

We're all familiar with the idea—or even the experience—that drunkenness causes cringeworthy coordination loss until we sober up. But more worryingly, a new study claims clumsiness and lack of balance are apparent even in alcoholics who've been sober for years. Researchers at Neurobehavioral Research in Hawaii divided 200 human guinea pigs into three groups: people with no history of alcoholism; alcoholics several weeks into sobriety; and alcoholics with an average of seven years' sober life between them. Everyone performed balance tests including standing heel-to-toe with folded arms for 60 seconds, standing on one leg, walking along a line, and repeating all this with their eyes shut. The recently-sober group fared worst—this was expected, with balance problems often observed in detox and rehab facilities. But surprisingly, the not-alcoholic group significantly outperformed the long-term-sober group, particularly in the tests performed with closed eyes. Scientists previously believed balance problems wouldn't last this long. "There's an 80 to 90 percent recovery, but there's still some residual effects," said Dr. George Fein, the study's principle investigator. Dr. Kevin P. Hill of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment Center at McLean Hospital, Mass., said the study implied "a point of no return where the brain cannot recover," while indicating damage to the cerebellum in the brain. He added that alcoholics may "permanently lose balance and coordination." Dr. Ken Thompson of Caron Treatment Centers noted that, "In the first year of recovery, generally, more minor accidents occur than in the year preceding." But more optimistically, he maintained that the balance problems for long-term recovering alcoholics "might not be clinically significant in the majority of clients." The good news is that such problems diminish with time—but they may never disappear.

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Will Godfrey is the former editor-in-chief of TheFix. He was also the founding editor-in-chief of Substance.com, and previously co-founded a magazine for prisoners in London. His work has appeared in Salon, Pacific Standard, AlterNet and The Nation among others. He is currently the Executive Director at FILTER. You can find Will on Linkedin and Twitter.