What Is Neuropathy? Neuropathy, also called as peripheral neuropathy, is a condition that mainly affects the nerve activity of the peripheral nervous system.
The peripheral nervous system is made up of a complex network of nerves, which connect the brain and spinal cord or the central nervous system (CNS) to the entire body. There are three types of nerves that make up the peripheral nervous system. Each type has a key role in maintaining a well-functioning and healthy body:
- Sensory Nerves: These nerves carry information from the senses toward the brain and spinal cord (e.g., temperature, light touch, and pain from a wound or cut).
- Motor Nerves: These are the nerves that go the other direction. They carry information from the brain toward the muscles (e.g., talking, grasping things, walking, or running).
- Autonomic Nerves: These nerves manage body functions that are unconsciously controlled, such as blood pressure, heart rate, digestion, and breathing.
Neuropathy occurs when there is nerve cell damage. Neuropathy may affect a combination of nerves and can negatively affect nerve communication with the brain in three ways:
- Loss of normal signaling
- Inappropriate or wrong signaling
- Signaling errors that alter sent messages
Causes of Neuropathy
In most cases, neuropathy has either genetic or acquired causes. Acquired neuropathy may either be idiopathic (has unknown cause) or due to other medical conditions or disorders, which include:
In the United States, diabetes is the leading cause of polyneuropathy. Approximately 60-70 percent of people with type 2 diabetes experience mild or moderate to severe symptoms of neuropathy. These symptoms include tingling, burning, or numbness of the hands and feet, weakness of numbness on the pelvis or trunk, and one-sided pain.
- Physical or Traumatic Injuries
One of the most common causes of acquired nerve injuries is a physical or traumatic injury. These injuries may be a result from falls, playing sports, vehicle or road accidents, and certain medical procedures that can damage or compress the nerves.
Serious nerve damage can also occur due to less severe physical traumas, which include:
- Arthritis: In arthritis, tendons and ligaments may swell due to forceful or repetitive activities or having prolonged nerve pressure due to a cast.
- Dislocated or Broken Bones: A broken or dislocated bone can put excessive pressure on nearby nerves.
- Slipped or Herniated Disks: The occurrence of slipped disks can put pressure on nerve fibers and cause symptoms, such as pain along the nerve and numbness.
- Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: This medical condition is caused by nerve compression as the nerve travels through the carpal tunnel of the wrist. The symptoms of this condition are tingling, pain, and numbness in the thumb and other fingers.
- Vascular Disease
Vascular problems that can lower the supply of oxygen to the nerves can result in nerve damage. Examples of these problems are vasculitis (blood vessel inflammation) and thickening of the blood vessel wall, which can impair the normal flow of blood. Other factors that can lead to neuropathy include smoking, atherosclerosis, and diabetes.
Certain types of infections can also affect the nerve tissues and cause peripheral neuropathy. These infections include those that are caused by viruses, such as:
- Herpes simplex
- West Nile fever
An infectious disease called Lyme disease can also cause symptoms of neuropathy a few weeks after being infected.
Other causes of neuropathy include:
- Toxin exposure
- Hormonal imbalances
- Vitamin or nutritional deficiencies
- Certain autoimmune diseases
- Certain types of cancers
- The use of chemotherapy drugs
- Liver and kidney problems
Neuropathy treatment usually depends on the underlying condition. If a person with neuropathy has diabetes, it is important to control blood sugar levels. When it comes to vitamin deficiencies, correcting these deficiencies often solve the problem.
In some cases, a combination of treatment methods can help relieve the symptoms of neuropathy. Commonly recommended treatments include:
- Over-the-counter (OTC) Pain Relievers
Pain medications that can be purchased OTC, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and acetaminophen can help relieve mild to moderate pain. However, when these medications are taken in excess, it can affect the normal function of your stomach or liver. For this reason, it is better to avoid these drugs, particularly if you regularly consume alcohol.
- Prescription Medications
Certain types of medications can also be prescribed to help relieve neuropathy symptoms. Prescription medications include antidepressants, anticonvulsants, and narcotics. Some examples are:
- Cyclooxygenase-2 inhibitors (COX-2 inhibitors)
- Steroid injections
The onset of neuropathy may be prevented by living a healthy lifestyle and switching to healthy eating habits:
- Avoid the consumption of alcohol or consume alcohol only in moderate amounts.
- Avoid or quit smoking
- Consume a healthy diet
- Exercise regularly
- For people with diabetes, taking extra care with their legs and feet is a must.
- The Foundation for Peripheral Neuropathy. Peripheral Neuropathy Risk Factors + Facts. Accessed 09/07/2018.
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Diabetic Neuropathy. Accessed 09/07/2018.
- National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse. Diabetic Neuropathies: The Nerve Damage of Diabetes Accessed. The Clearinghouse NIH Publication No. 08–3185. (2008)
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Peripheral Neuropathy Fact Sheet. NINDS, NIH Publication No. 18-NS-4853. (2018)