An estimated 20 million people in the United States have some form of peripheral neuropathy — a condition stemming from damage to the peripheral nervous system. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke reports that more than 100 types of peripheral neuropathy have been identified, each with its own symptoms and prognosis, making it a complex disorder.
The peripheral nervous system transfers information between the central nervous system and every body part. When this system is obstructed, motor, sensory and autonomic nerves can create neuropathies — damage or disease affecting nerves. Peripheral neuropathies are formed when axons, the threadlike portion of a nerve, and myelin, a fatty substance that coats the axon, are damaged. Peripheral neuropathies are classified by the type of damage to the nerves. Mononeuropathies occur when only one nerve is damaged, while polyneuropathies are more common and affect multiple nerves.
Symptoms of peripheral neuropathy include numbness, tingling and muscle weakness, most commonly in the hands and feet. Burning, sharp pains, loss of balance, loss of reflexes, cramping and pricking sensations can also occur. Autonomic neuropathy symptoms, in which nerve damage affects organs and glands, may present as nausea, vomiting or bloating after meals, incontinence, dizziness or fainting, blurred vision, heat intolerance and low blood sugar levels.
Health issues such as diabetes may cause peripheral neuropathy. The risk increases with age and duration of the disease. Studies have shown that diabetics can reduce the risk of nerve damage by keeping blood sugar levels close to normal.
Poor diets can also lead to peripheral neuropathy. A deficiency in vitamin B12 may cause anemia and nerve damage. The lack of vitamin B12 can cause improper nerve function and trigger a lack of coordination, sensory loss and numbness. Peripheral neuropathy can also be a result of vitamin A, vitamin E and vitamin B1 deficiencies.
Peripheral neuropathy can also be caused by a hereditary disorder. Families with a history of Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, Fabry disease or Friedreich’s ataxia may experience a form of peripheral neuropathy. These genetic disorders can cause neuropathies to begin in early adulthood, but more severe neuropathies frequently appear in infancy or childhood. Other possible causes of peripheral neuropathy include alcoholism, infection, autoimmune diseases, toxin or poison exposure, medications such as cancer therapy drugs and antibiotics, trauma or nerve injury, and tumors.
Adopting healthier lifestyle habits, such as maintaining optimal weight, exercising and eating a balanced diet, can reduce effects of neuropathies. Physical or occupational therapy is also important when treating peripheral neuropathy, because it often helps improve balance and motor strength.
Those who experience peripheral neuropathies can be prescribed medication, such as lidocaine and capsaicin, to decrease the amount of pain caused by symptoms. If you are experiencing symptoms of peripheral neuropathy, talk to your physician to determine the best course of treatment.
Dr. Nicole Everman, MD, works with KentuckyOne Health Neurology Associates.