What Is Neuropathy? Understand the Symptoms and Treatment

What Is Neuropathy?

Neuropathy, also known as nerve damage, is a term used to describe various conditions that consist of the impairment of peripheral nerves. It can have various causes ranging from diabetes to chemotherapy.

Learn more out about the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of neuropathy.

The symptoms associated with nerve damage depend entirely on the underlying cause but can include:

  • Numbness; either temporary or permanent
  • Burning, tingling, or prickling sensation
  • Sensitivity to touch
  • Muscle weakness
  • Pain
  • Impaired sexual function
  • Trouble urinating

For you to understand how neuropathy works, it is important to recognize that the nervous system is broken down into two separate sections: the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. The brain and spinal cord make up the central nervous system, while the peripheral nervous system is responsible for communication between the rest of the body and the brain and spinal cord.

The peripheral nervous system also has subdivisions of the somatic (voluntary) nervous system and the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system. One controls all the active functions that we can consciously regulate, while the other drives processes such as breathing, heartbeat, and digestion.

Both the somatic and autonomic peripheral nerves can be involved in neuropathy.

Causes of Neuropathy

Nerve damage can happen in a variety of ways, as mentioned, but the most common causes include:

  • Diabetic peripheral neuropathy. This is by far the most widespread type of neuropathy and happens when someone with diabetes does not control their blood sugar satisfactorily.
  • Idiopathic neuropathy is the second most common type of nerve damage. In 23 percent of cases, the cause isn’t identifiable, and consequently, the condition has been dubbed as idiopathic peripheral neuropathy.
  • Chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy affects 10 percent of all Americans diagnosed with nerve damage.
  • HIV/AIDS has been labeled as the cause of about two percent of neuropathy cases in the U.S.
  • Guillain-Barre syndrome is a rare circumstance in which the body’s immune system attacks its own nerves. This is a very uncommon cause of neuropathy.
  • Autoimmune diseases and physical trauma are also associated with neuropathy.

It’s worth noting that what you consume can also cause this condition.

Vitamin B12 deficiency, copper deficiency, excess vitamin B6, and exposure to toxins such as mercury and arsenic can all lead to toxic neuropathy.

Types of Neuropathy

There are three types of nerve damage. The specific location of the nerve injury determines the type that you have.

Mononeuropathy involves only one nerve.

Polyneuropathy involves multiple nerves, and it can affect autonomic, sensory, or motor nerves. Damage to autonomic nerves can negatively influence blood pressure and even cause gastrointestinal symptoms. Sensory nerve damage can affect your sense of balance, while injured motor nerves can lead to impaired movement and reflexes. Damage to both sensory and motor nerves is called sensorimotor polyneuropathy and can affect nerves all over the entire body.

Distal symmetric polyneuropathy is widespread in people with diabetes. It starts in the nerves located far away from the central nervous system. As the condition progresses, it involves both the feet and the upper extremities. Symmetrical pain and numbness in the feet are often symptoms experienced in this type of neuropathy.

How To Diagnose and Treat Neuropathy

At first, the doctor will review a person’s medical history. They will look specifically for any mention of complaints related to neuropathy. Next, they will do an examination of the area in question and see if everything is functioning normally.

Some tests may also be ordered, including blood tests, skin biopsies, electrodiagnostic testing, needle examinations, and quantitative sensory testing.

Following a positive diagnosis, your doctor will discuss with you the possible treatment.

Depending on the nature of the neuropathy and the severity of your symptoms, suggested treatments may include:

Over-the-counter pain medication like Tylenol (acetaminophen), nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and topical creams with anesthetic properties.

Prescription medication. Some examples of medications that have been effective for this condition include antiseizure, antiepileptic, and antidepressant medications.

Surgery may be a useful option to release any pressure on the nerves and also to treat damage caused by neuropathy.

Nerve stimulation, also called neuromodulation, involves putting an electrode along the affected peripheral nerve. This method uses negative feedback to help “turn off” the pain signals.

Final Thoughts

Although nerve damage can be permanent, the prognosis isn’t always negative. If caught early enough, the underlying cause can be addressed, which can lead to an improved outlook. For example, if you suffer from diabetic neuropathy, the improvement of blood sugar control will not only dramatically improve your symptoms but can also stop the damage from progressing.
Healthy lifestyle choices can improve your quality of life dramatically when you suffer from neuropathy.

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About the Author: Julie Souza