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Peripheral Neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy is a type of damage to the nervous system. Specifically, it occurs when there is a problem with your peripheral nervous system, the network of nerves that transmits information from your central nervous system (your brain and spinal cord) to the rest of your body.

Peripheral Neuropathy: What You Need to Know

  • There are more than 100 types of peripheral neuropathy, each with its own set of symptoms and prognosis.

  • Peripheral neuropathy has many different causes. One of the most common causes of peripheral neuropathy in the U.S. is diabetes.

  • The most common type of peripheral neuropathy is diabetic neuropathy, caused by a high sugar level and resulting in nerve fiber damage in your legs and feet.

  • Symptoms can range from tingling or numbness in a certain body part to more serious effects, such as burning pain or paralysis.

Peripheral Neuropathy Causes

Peripheral neuropathy has many different causes. The most common causes are metabolic conditions, such as diabetes, and chronic kidney insufficiency or toxicity from alcohol or medications, such as chemotherapy drugs. Some peripheral neuropathy cases are caused by inflammation in nerves, and others are inherited. Diabetes accounts for about half of all causes of peripheral neuropathy cases in the U.S. About 60 to 70 percent of Americans with diabetes have some form of nerve damage.

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Peripheral Neuropathy Types

There are more than 100 types of peripheral neuropathy, each with its own set of symptoms and prognosis. To help doctors classify them, they are often broken down into the following categories:

  • Motor neuropathy. This is damage to the nerves that controls speech, as well as muscles and movement in the body, such as moving your limbs.

  • Sensory neuropathy. Sensory nerves control what you feel, such as pain or a light touch. Sensory neuropathy affects these groups of nerves. Diabetic neuropathy is a common type of sensory neuropathy.

  • Autonomic neuropathy. Autonomic nerves control biological functions that you are not conscious of, such as breathing, heartbeat or gastrointestinal functions. Damage to these nerves can be serious.

  • Combination neuropathies. You may have a combination of two or three of these other types of neuropathies, such as motor neuropathy or a sensory-motor neuropathy.

Peripheral Neuropathy Symptoms

Symptoms can range from tingling or numbness in a certain body part to more serious effects, such as burning pain or muscle weakness. The symptoms of peripheral neuropathy can vary greatly depending on what part of the body is affected and which type of neuropathy you have.

Motor neuropathy symptoms may include:

  • Muscle weakness

  • Cramps

  • Muscle twitching

  • Loss of muscle mass

Sensory neuropathy symptoms may include:

  • Numbness (loss of sensation or feeling in body parts)

  • Paresthesias (abnormal sensations such a tingling, pricking sensations)

  • Pain that can be aching, burning or sharp

  • Loss of balance

  • Sleep disruptions

  • Loss of pain or sensation that can put you at risk, such as not feeling limb pain

Autonomic neuropathy symptoms may include:

  • Inability to sweat properly, leading to heat intolerance

  • Loss of bladder control, leading to infection or incontinence

  • Dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting because of a loss of control over blood pressure

  • Diarrhea, constipation or incontinence related to nerve damage in the intestines or digestive tract

  • Difficulty eating or swallowing

  • Life-threatening symptoms, such as difficulty breathing or irregular heartbeat

The symptoms of peripheral neuropathy may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

Peripheral Neuropathy Diagnosis

The symptoms and body parts affected by peripheral neuropathy are so varied that it may be difficult to make a diagnosis. If your doctor suspects nerve damage, he or she will take an extensive patient history and conduct a number of neurological tests to determine the location and extent of your nerve damage.

Depending on what basic tests reveal, your doctor may want to perform more in-depth evaluation and other tests to get a better look at your nerve damage.

Tests may include:

Peripheral Neuropathy Treatment

Usually, a peripheral neuropathy can’t be cured, but you can do a lot of things to prevent it from getting worse. If an underlying condition like diabetes is at fault, your doctor will treat that first, then address the pain and other symptoms of neuropathy.

In some cases, over-the-counter pain relievers can help. Other times, prescription drugs are needed. Some of these drugs include anti-epileptic drugs, such as gabapentin and pregabalin, and some classes of antidepressants, including duloxetine and tricyclics, such as amitriptyline.

Lidocaine injections and patches may help with pain in other instances. In extreme situations, surgery can be used to destroy nerves or repair injuries that are causing neuropathic pain and symptoms.

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Other Remedies

In some cases, prescription or over-the-counter hand and foot braces can help you compensate for muscle weakness. Orthotics can help you walk better. Relaxation techniques, such as yoga, may help ease emotional as well as physical symptoms. Regular exercise can help lessen pain from neuropathy and may even help slow disease progression.

Peripheral Neuropathy Prevention

Lifestyle choices can play a role in preventing peripheral neuropathy. You can lessen your risk for many of these conditions by avoiding alcohol, correcting vitamin deficiencies, eating a healthy diet, losing weight, avoiding toxins and exercising regularly.

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Peripheral Neuropathy Management

Even if you already have some form of peripheral neuropathy, healthy lifestyle steps can help you feel your best and reduce the pain and symptoms related to the disorder. You’ll also want to quit smoking, not let injuries go untreated, and be meticulous about caring for your feet and treating wounds to avoid complications, such as the loss of a limb.

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