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More than 100 types of peripheral neuropathy have been identified, each with its own characteristic set of symptoms.*
*Source: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

Neuropathy Overview

Peripheral neuropathy is a type of damage to the peripheral nervous system, the network of nerves that transmit information from the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system) to the rest of the body. It is not a single disease, but rather a symptom with many possible causes.


The condition is sometimes likened to static on a telephone because peripheral neuropathy can interrupt messages between the brain and the rest of the body. Typically, neuropathy affects multiple nerves affecting all limbs. This is known as polyneuropathy. More rarely a single nerve is involved (mononeuropathy).


The condition can be inherited but is more typically acquired through physical injury to a nerve, tumors, toxins, autoimmune responses, nutritional deficiencies, alcoholism, and vascular and metabolic disorders. Physical injury through automobile accidents, falls and sports is the most common cause of injury to a nerve.


Doctors use four categories to classify the many types of neuropathy.


  • Motor neuropathy is damage to the nerves that control muscles and movement in the body, such as moving the hands and talking.
  • Sensory neuropathy involves the sensory nerves, which control sensation such as pain or touch.
  • Autonomic nerve neuropathy affects the autonomic nerves, which control biological functions performed unconsciously like breathing. Damage to these nerves can be serious.
  • Combination neuropathies. Some patients have a combination of these or other types of neuropathy.

There are many different causes, some inherited and others due to an injury or another condition. In some acute neuropathies, such as Guillain-Barré syndrome, symptoms come on suddenly and progress rapidly, then slowly subside as nerves heal. In more chronic forms of neuropathy the symptoms begin subtly and progress slowly. Some patients experience a period of relief, followed by a relapse of symptoms. The condition is very rarely fatal unless it is complicated by the presence of other diseases.


If you or someone you know is experiencing these symptoms make an appointment with a WellStar neurologist. The doctor will help you understand the symptoms and determine whether they indicate neuropathy or another possible cause.


Although the condition cannot be cured, there are a variety of treatments—including medications and other remedies—that can ease the discomfort.


Symptoms

Symptoms are many and varied depending on what part of the body is affected. These can range from mildly annoying tingling to burning pain or paralysis. Because a number of these mimic symptoms of other conditions, it’s important to see your doctor for help with diagnosis.


Among symptoms:


  • Gradual onset of numbness and tingling in the hands or feet, possibly spreading into the legs and arm
  • Sharp, burning, jabbing or electric-like pain
  • Extreme sensitivity to touch
  • Changes in skin, hair or nails
  • Lack of coordination
  • Muscle twitching
  • Muscle weakness or paralysis
  • Cramps
  • Emotional disturbances
  • Sleep problems
  • Loss of pain or sensation that can put you at risk, for example not feeling an impending heart attack or limb pain

If autonomic nerves are involved symptoms can include:


  • Heat intolerance
  • Bowel, bladder or digestive problems
  • Changes in blood pressure resulting in lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Life threatening symptoms such as irregular heartbeat or difficulty breathing

The most common inherited form of neuropathy, Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, is characterized by extreme weakening and wasting of the muscles in the lower legs and feet, gait problems, loss of tendon reflexes and numbness in the lower limbs.


Risk Factors

Risk factors for peripheral neuropathy include:


  • Diabetes, especially if blood sugar is not well controlled
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Vitamin deficiencies
  • Infections like Lyme disease, Epstein-Barr virus, hepatitis C and HIV
  • Autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and Lupus
  • Problems with the liver, kidney or thyroid
  • Exposure to certain toxins
  • Repetitive physical stress
  • Having an inherited form of peripheral neuropathy resulting in genetic flaws