Peripheral nerves carry information to and from the brain. They also carry signals to and from the spinal cord to the rest of the body.
Peripheral neuropathy means these nerves don't work properly. Peripheral neuropathy may occur because of damage to a single nerve or a group of nerves. It may also affect nerves in the whole body.
Neuropathy is very common. There are many types and causes. Often, no cause can be found. Some nerve diseases run in families.
Diabetes is the most common cause of this type of nerve problem. High blood sugar levels over a long time can damage your nerves.
Other health conditions that may cause neuropathy are:
Other things that can lead to nerve damage are:
Symptoms depend on which nerve is damaged, and whether the damage affects one nerve, several nerves, or the whole body.
PAIN AND NUMBNESS
Tingling or burning in the arms and legs may be an early sign of nerve damage. These feelings often start in your toes and feet. You may have deep pain. This often happens in the feet and legs.
You may lose feeling in your legs and arms. Because of this, you may not notice when you step on something sharp. You may not notice when you touch something that is too hot or cold, like the water in a bathtub. You may not know when you have a small blister or sore on your feet.
Numbness may make it harder to tell where your feet are moving and can cause a loss of balance.
Damage to the nerves can make it harder to control muscles. It can also cause weakness. You may notice problems moving a part of your body. You may fall because your legs buckle. You may trip over your toes.
Doing tasks such as buttoning a shirt may be harder. You may also notice that your muscles twitch or cramp. Your muscles may become smaller.
PROBLEMS WITH BODY ORGANS
People with nerve damage may have problems digesting food. You may feel full or bloated and have heartburn after eating only a little food. Sometimes, you may vomit food that has not been digested well. You may have either loose stools or hard stools. Some people have problems swallowing.
Damage to the nerves to your heart may cause you to feel lightheaded, or faint, when you stand up.
Angina is the warning chest pain for heart disease and heart attack. Nerve damage may "hide" this warning sign. You should learn other warning signs of a heart attack. They are sudden fatigue, sweating, shortness of breath, nausea, and vomiting.
OTHER SYMPTOMS OF NERVE DAMAGE
The health care provider will examine you and ask about your health history and symptoms.
Blood tests may be done to look for causes of nerve damage.
The provider may also recommend:
Treating the cause of nerve damage, if known, may improve your symptoms.
People with diabetes should learn to control their blood sugar.
If you use alcohol, stop.
Your medicines may need to be changed. Do not stop taking any medicine before talking to your provider.
Replacing a vitamin or making other changes in your diet may help. If you have low levels of B12 or other vitamins, your provider may recommend supplements or injections.
You may need surgery to remove pressure from a nerve.
You may have therapy to learn exercises to improve muscle strength and control. Wheelchairs, braces, and splints may improve movement or the ability to use an arm or leg that has nerve damage.
SETTING UP YOUR HOME
Safety is very important for people with nerve damage. Nerve damage can increase the risk for falls and other injuries. To stay safe:
WATCHING YOUR SKIN
Wear shoes at all times to protect your feet from injury. Before you put them on, always check inside your shoes for stones or rough areas that may hurt your feet.
Check your feet every day. Look at the top, sides, soles, heels, and between the toes. Wash your feet every day with lukewarm water and mild soap. Use lotion, petroleum jelly, lanolin, or oil on dry skin.
Check bathwater temperature with your elbow before putting your feet in the water.
Avoid putting pressure on areas with nerve damage for too long.
Medicines may help reduce pain in the feet, legs, and arms. They usually do not bring back loss of feeling. Your provider may prescribe:
Your provider may refer you to a pain specialist. Talk therapy may help you better understand how your pain is affecting your life. It can also help you learn ways to better cope with pain.
TREATING OTHER SYMPTOMS
Taking medicine, sleeping with your head raised, and wearing elastic stockings may help with low blood pressure and fainting. Your provider may give you medicines to help with bowel movement problems. Eating small, frequent meals may help. To help bladder problems, your provider may suggest that you:
Medicines can often help with erection problems.
You can find support group information from The Neuropathy Association - www.neuropathy.org
How well you do depends on the cause of nerve damage.
Some nerve-related problems do not interfere with daily life. Others get worse quickly and may lead to long-term, severe symptoms and problems.
When a medical condition can be found and treated, your outlook may be excellent. But sometimes, nerve damage can be permanent, even if the cause is treated.
Long-term (chronic) pain can be a major problem for some people. Numbness in the feet can lead to skin sores that do not heal. In rare cases, numbness in the feet may lead to amputation.
There is no cure for most neuropathies that are passed down in families.
Call your provider if you have symptoms of nerve damage. Early treatment increases the chance of controlling symptoms and preventing more problems.
You can prevent some causes of nerve damage.
Reviewed By: Amit M. Shelat, DO, FACP, Attending Neurologist and Assistant Professor of Clinical Neurology, SUNY Stony Brook, School of Medicine, Stony Brook, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team. Editorial update 12/14/2016.