I feel like when working in the hospital, we come into contact with patients with peripheral neuropathy all the time! Patients with uncontrolled diabetes very commonly have issues with this. What are other causes of peripheral neuropathy and how do we treat it? Jessica from Vive Health has put together a great summary of all you need to know about peripheral neuropathy.
If you encounter patients with conditions like diabetes or degenerative disc disease, or victims of traumatic accidents, you are likely going to see your share of peripheral neuropathy cases. Don’t miss this essential guide to peripheral neuropathy - understanding what causes it, what the symptoms are, and how it is treated.
What is Peripheral Neuropathy?
The word ‘peripheral’ literally means to sit on the edge, or periphery, of something. In the human body, the peripheral nervous system (PNS) is the coordinated grouping of nerves and ganglia that exist outside of the central nervous system.
The PNS conducts the transmission of messages from the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body. When any of your nerves in the PNS become damaged, they may no longer receive and return messages as they should. This disrupted signaling results in a variety of symptoms including pain and numbness that are typically localized to the hands and feet, however, some patients will experience symptoms elsewhere like in the arms, legs, and face.
What Causes Peripheral Neuropathy?
Some rare inherited cases of peripheral neuropathy are a result of genetics, however, there are myriad other factors that contribute to peripheral neuropathy as well.
Diabetes - nerve damage and dysfunction due to high blood glucose levels affect upwards of half of all patients with diabetes over their lifetime
Autoimmune conditions - diseases like lupus, Sjogren's syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, necrotizing vasculitis, and Guillain-Barre syndrome can induce peripheral neuropathy symptoms
Vitamin deficiencies - malnutrition and alcohol abuse can result in an inadequate consumption of vitamins that support nerve health like niacin, vitamin E, and vitamins B-12, B-6, and B-1
Pressure on a nerve - the compression or severing of a nerve may result from a variety of causes including malignant and benign tumors, muscle and tendon overuse (i.e. carpal tunnel), and physical injury from things like car accidents or sports play
Infections - bacterial or viral infections like shingles, Lyme disease, HIV, hepatitis C, and Epstein-Barr virus can attack nerve tissues
Cancer - bone marrow disorders like lymphoma and bone cancer as well as cancers that trigger the body’s immune response to attack critical tissues can cause nerve damage. Chemotherapy and some other medications can also contribute to peripheral neuropathy
Exposure to toxins - dangerous substances including chemicals and hard metals can cause nerve damage
Additional conditions like hormonal imbalances, kidney disease, and connective tissue disorders can also lead a patient to experience nerve damage and dysfunction.
What Are The Symptoms of Peripheral Neuropathy?
Depending on which type of nerve(s) is damaged, symptoms of peripheral neuropathy will vary. Nerve fibers are categorized into 3 groups: sensory nerves which signal the brain in regards to feeling (i.e. pain, temperature changes, physical contact), motor nerves which control conscious movement (i.e. walking, talking, grabbing things), and autonomic nerves that control unconscious activity (i.e. breathing and organ, heart, and gland function).
With sensory nerve damage, a patient may experience pain receptors firing randomly resulting in pain and extreme sensitivity to touch. Additional symptoms might include numbness, tingling, pins and needles sensations, and jabbing, throbbing, sharp, freezing, or burning pain.
With motor nerve damage, common symptoms may present in a patient as muscle weakness, falling, lack of coordination, muscle cramps, twitching of the muscle under the skin, muscle shrinkage, and even paralysis.
With autonomic nerve damage, patients may experience a loss of body temperature control, excessive sweating, heat intolerance, digestive problems, bowel and bladder issues, and blood pressure problems resulting from the body’s inability to contract and expand blood critical vessels. In some cases, damage to esophageal nerves can also cause difficulties with eating and drinking (dysphagia).
While most forms of peripheral nerve damage can be managed and even improved, complications can arise that are life-threatening. For example, a patient with diabetes may have nerve damage in their foot and not recognize when an open sore has developed into an infected wound.
How Is Peripheral Neuropathy Treated?
The good news is that, in many cases, nerves can both recover and regenerate. After peripheral neuropathy is diagnosed, the underlying cause can often be treated to help alleviate symptoms.
Getting high blood sugar levels under control, for example, can help alleviate symptoms for diabetics. Activities that promote good vascular health, like exercise and quitting smoking, can help the body deliver critical oxygen and nutrients to help nerves repair themselves too.
For motor-based symptoms, orthopedic aids that assist with mobility and joint mobilization can help prevent further injury, pain, and dysfunction. For example, a wrist brace may prevent carpal tunnel symptoms or a ball of foot pad with toe separators may aid metatarsalgia pain.
Drugs that alter biochemical levels, drugs that quiet or block nerve signaling, narcotics, local anesthetics, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, and surgery are also potential avenues for treating peripheral nerve damage.
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Jessica Hegg is the content manager at ViveHealth.com. Avid gym-rat and nutrition enthusiast, she’s interested in all things related to staying active and living healthy lifestyle. Through her writing she works to share valuable information aimed at overcoming obstacles and improving the quality of life for others.