What is peripheral neuropathy?

Peripheral Neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy is a condition that affects the peripheral nerves. These are the nerves that lead from the spinal cord to other parts of the body. These nerves control the sense of touch, how a person feels pain and temperature, and muscle strength. A person who has peripheral neuropathy may find it hard to do things that require coordination, such as walking or fastening buttons.

Peripheral neuropathy is often caused by other health problems such as diabetes, kidney problems, vitamin deficiencies and alcohol use disorder, HIV, or Guillain-Barré syndrome. It can happen after exposure to toxic substances, such as arsenic, or by certain medicines such as those used for chemotherapy.

What are the symptoms of peripheral neuropathy?

Symptoms of peripheral neuropathy can occur slowly over time. The most common ones are:

  • Numbness, tightness, and tingling, especially in the legs, hands, and feet.
  • Loss of feeling.
  • Burning, shooting, or stabbing pain in the legs, hands, and feet. Often the pain is worse at night.
  • Weakness and loss of balance.

How is peripheral neuropathy treated?

Treatment for peripheral neuropathy can relieve symptoms. This is done by treating the health problem that's causing it. For example, if you have diabetes, keeping your blood sugar within your target range may help. Or maybe your body lacks certain vitamins caused by drinking too much alcohol. In that case, treatment may include eating a healthy diet, taking vitamins, and stopping alcohol use.

You may have physical therapy. This can increase muscle strength and help build muscle control. Over-the-counter medicine can relieve mild nerve pain. Your doctor may also prescribe medicine to help with severe pain, numbness, tingling, and weakness. If you have neuropathy in your feet, it's a good idea to have them checked during each office visit. This can help prevent problems.

Some people find that physical therapy, acupuncture, or transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) helps relieve pain.

How is peripheral neuropathy diagnosed?

To diagnose peripheral neuropathy, your doctor will ask you about:

  • Your symptoms.
  • Your medical history. This may include your use of alcohol, risk of HIV infection, or exposure to toxic substances.
  • Your family's medical history, including nerve disease.

Your doctor will check your nerves. The doctor may check your muscle strength and ability to feel touch, temperature, and pain.

Sometimes nerve tests are needed. These include electromyography and nerve conduction tests.

You may also have blood tests. These tests will help the doctor find out if you have conditions that can cause neuropathy. Examples are diabetes, vitamin deficiencies, thyroid disease, and kidney problems.

How can you care for yourself when you have peripheral neuropathy?

Adopting healthy habits can reduce the effects of peripheral neuropathy. Be sure to eat a healthy diet, get regular exercise, avoid alcohol, and quit smoking.

It's also a good idea to take care to avoid injury.

  • When your feet or legs feel numb, it's easier to lose your balance and fall. At home:
    • Remove throw rugs and clutter.
    • Install sturdy handrails on stairways.
    • Put grab bars near your shower, bathtub, and toilet.
    • Use a cane or walker if needed.
    • Use night-lights to help you see better.
  • To protect your hands:
    • Use pot holders, and avoid hot water when you are cooking.
    • Always check your bath or shower using a part of your body that can feel temperature normally, such as your elbow.
  • Check your feet every day (or have someone else check for you):
    • Look at all areas of your feet, including your toes.
    • Use a handheld mirror or a magnifying mirror attached to the bathroom wall near the baseboard to inspect your feet.

What causes peripheral neuropathy?

Doctors don't always know what causes peripheral neuropathy. It is often caused by other health problems. It can also run in families.

The most common cause is diabetes. Having your blood sugar too high for too long a time can damage the nerves.

Other problems can also cause peripheral neuropathy, such as:

Kidney problems.

These can lead to toxic substances in the blood that damage nerves.

Vitamin deficiencies and alcohol use disorder.

Not getting enough nutrients, such as vitamin B-12, can damage nerves. Overuse of alcohol and not eating a healthy diet can lead to these vitamin deficiencies.

Infectious or inflammatory diseases.

Diseases, such as HIV or Guillain-Barré syndrome, can damage the central and peripheral nerves.

Exposure to toxic substances.

Arsenic and certain medicines, such as those used for chemotherapy, can damage nerves.

What can happen when you have peripheral neuropathy?

If peripheral neuropathy gets worse, it can lead to a complete lack of feeling in your hands or feet. This can make you more likely to injure them. It may lead to calluses and blisters. It can also lead to bone and joint problems, infection, and ulcers.

For instance, small, repeated injuries to the foot may lead to bigger problems. This can happen because you can't feel the injuries. Reduced feeling in the feet can also change your step, leading to bone or joint problems.

If untreated, foot problems can become so severe that the foot or lower leg may have to be amputated. But treatment can slow down peripheral neuropathy. And it's a good idea to take care to avoid injury.

What is peripheral neuropathy?

Peripheral neuropathy is a problem that affects the peripheral nerves. These nerves lead from the spinal cord to other parts of the body. They control your sense of touch, how you feel pain and temperature, and your muscle strength.

Most of the time the problem starts in the fingers and toes. As it gets worse, it moves into the limbs. It can cause pain and loss of feeling in the feet, legs, and hands.

©2011-2024 Healthwise, Incorporated

The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.