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.
The symptoms of peripheral neuropathy can vary greatly depending on what part of the body is affected. Symptoms can range from tingling or numbness in a certain body part to more serious effects such as burning pain or paralysis.
Peripheral neuropathy has many different causes. Some people inherit the disorder from their parents, and others develop it because of an injury or another disorder.
In many cases, a different type of medical problem, such as a kidney condition or a hormone imbalance, leads to peripheral neuropathy. One of the most common causes of peripheral neuropathy in the U.S. is diabetes. About 60 to 70 percent of Americans with diabetes have some form of nerve damage.
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 control muscles and movement in the body, such as moving your hands and arms or talking.
Sensory neuropathy. Sensory nerves control what you feel, such as pain or a light touch. Sensory neuropathy affects these groups of nerves.
Autonomic nerve neuropathy. Autonomic nerves control biological functions that you are not conscious of, such as breathing and heartbeat. 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 a predominantly motor neuropathy or a sensory-motor neuropathy.
The symptoms of peripheral neuropathy vary based on the type that you have.
Motor neuropathy symptoms may include:
Loss of muscle and bone
Changes in skin, hair, or nails
Sensory neuropathy symptoms may include:
Loss of sensation or feeling in body parts
Loss of balance or other functions as a side effect of the loss of feeling in the legs, arms, or other body parts
Loss of pain or sensation that can put you at risk, such as not feeling an impending heart attack or 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.
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. These may include:
Spinal fluid tests
Muscle strength tests
Tests of the ability to detect vibrations
Depending on what basic tests reveal, your doctor may want to perform more in-depth scanning and other tests to get a better look at your nerve damage. Tests may include:
Nerve and skin biopsy
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 and then treat the pain and other symptoms of neuropathy.
In some cases, over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers can help. Other times, prescription drugs are needed. Some of these drugs include mexiletine, a medication developed to correct irregular heart rhythms; antiepileptic drugs, such as gabapentin, phenytoin, and carbamazepine; and some classes of antidepressants, including tricyclics such as amitriptyline.
Lidocaine injections and patches may help with pain in other instances. And in extreme situations, surgery can be used to destroy nerves or repair injuries that are causing neuropathic pain and symptoms.
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.
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.
In some cases, OTC 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.