All You Need to Know About Peripheral Neuropathy

Peripheral nerves originate from the spinal cord and are located along dermatomes, an area of skin that is supplied by a single nerve cell. These nerves create an intricate network in our body that helps the brain and spinal cord connect with other parts of the body, such as muscles, organs, and the skin. Typically speaking, peripheral neuropathy arises from damaged nerves that can affect the transfer of messages to and from the brain. It could lead to tingling, numbness, and other unpleasant nerve sensations. 

Furthermore, peripheral neuropathy can stem from a number of causes, ranging from an acute injury to nerve damage associated with diabetes. This nerve damage can affect one or more dermatomes, which can depreciate the link between the brain, spinal cord, and other parts of the body. They are quite common amongst people over the age of 50, but in some rare cases (such as in the case of diabetes), it can affect younger demographics, as well.

As a condition, peripheral neuropathy is quite common, especially in older individuals. However, altogether, it affects about 3-4% of people in this age group. It can drastically affect the quality of life if overlooked and can lead to other severe disorders if overlooked. Neuropathy can be reversed in some instances but it is not always guaranteed. Ultimately, learning about the causes and treatment options for peripheral neuropathy can help you take the right actions to safeguard yourself against it.

The Common Signs and Symptoms of Peripheral Neuropathy

Our peripheral system hosts a variety of nerve cells, all of which have specific functions. Nerves can be classified into three types: sensory, motor, and autonomic. Sensory nerves help determine the intensity of temperature, pain, vibrations, or other variables from the skin, whereas motor nerves control muscle movement. Autonomic nerves undertake complex functions, such as regulating blood pressure, digestion, bladder function, and perspiration. 

The type of nerves affected by peripheral neuropathy will largely influence the potential symptoms of this condition, but some of the more prevalent signs of this disorder include:

  • Gradual onset of pain or numbness in the hands and feet 
  • Creeping pain that moves upward (towards the limbs)
  • Sensitivity to touch
  • Lack of cognition and falling
  • Weakness associated with muscles
  • Bowel or digestion problems
  • Heat intolerance
  • Throbbing pain during certain activities (like pain in the hands when writing)

Peripheral neuropathy can affect one nerve, multiple nerves, or a whole cross-section of nerve cells. The severity of neuropathy is largely dependent on the damage endured by nerve cells and the site of affected nerve cells. 

Why Does Neuropathy Develop?

Peripheral neuropathy can arise from a number of conditions. Diabetes is the most common cause of this nerve disorder, and nearly half of the patients with diabetes will develop some type of neuropathy during their lifetime. In some patients, it can progress to kidney neuropathy, which can trigger a whole new subset of disorders. Because of this, early detection is vital, as it can help minimize the risk of serious and long-lasting side effects.

Autoimmune diseases – such as lupus, arthritis, and vasculitis – can also induce neuropathy when the patient’s peripheral network has incurred severe nerve damage. Although less common, inherited disorders such as Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT) can also pass on neuropathy from parents to children. Patients with tumors or bone marrow disorders are at the highest risk of developing neuropathy as a result of their body’s immune response. 

Treatment Options for Peripheral Neuropathy

Treatment for neuropathy typically involves addressing the underlying concerns or symptoms first, even if these exact co-morbidities are not always treatable. This makes it easier to evaluate the areas that have sustained nerve damage and potentially reverse the condition. For instance, managing blood-sugar levels in diabetic patients can be controlled by maintaining a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and cutting down on smoking and drinking. 

If neuropathy is caused by certain medications, then stopping the medication can help curtail the effects and spread of the neuropathy. Depending on other factors, some patients may be advised to go on a course of steroids or immunosuppressants to reduce the activity of the immune system. Conversely, other patients might be administered immunoglobulins (a mixture of antibodies synthesized by the immune system) through injections to help treat their ongoing nerve pain. 

It’s always best to check in with your healthcare provider as soon as you notice any of the symptoms of neuropathy. By making healthy lifestyle choices, exercising regularly, and eating a diet rich in vegetables, grains, fruits, and protein, you can keep your peripheral network healthy.