Peripheral Neuropathy

What is peripheral neuropathy?

The nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord are the peripheral nervous system. A problem with the nerves of the peripheral nervous system is called peripheral neuropathy or nerve palsy. Peripheral nerves connect your brain and spinal cord to your muscles and allow you to move your muscles. They also conduct feelings such as pain, temperature, touch, and limb position from the surface of your body to your brain. The nerves connecting to internal organs that allow involuntary actions such as breathing, sexual function, and digestion are also part of the peripheral nervous system.

How does it occur?

Peripheral neuropathy can have many different causes. Anything that interferes with the function of a nerve can lead to neuropathy. Some common causes are:

  • direct injury to the nerve (for instance, after you hit your elbow and your arm tingles down to your hand)

  • pressure put on a nerve by swelling in the tissues around it (carpal tunnel syndrome is an example)

  • diseases such as diabetes, arthritis, or lupus

  • infections (usually viral, for example, infections by the herpes virus)

  • a lack of vitamins or minerals.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of peripheral neuropathy depend on which nerves are damaged and the function of the damaged nerves.

  • Nerves that help you move your muscles are called motor nerves. If motor nerves are damaged, you may have muscle weakness.

  • Nerves that conduct feelings, such as touch, are called sensory nerves. When these nerves are affected, you may have numbness, tingling, pain, or extreme sensitivity to touch.

  • The nerves connecting to internal organs are called the autonomic nervous system. Depending on what organs are affected, you may have vision problems, dizziness, problems with digestion, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, leaking of urine from the bladder, or incomplete bladder emptying.

How is it diagnosed?

Your health care provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and will examine you. You may have a nerve conduction test to check the function of specific nerves. You may have other tests.

How is it treated?

The treatment of peripheral neuropathy depends on the cause. For example:

  • If the problem happens after you had a fall or something hit you, it usually goes away on its own and no specific treatment is needed.

  • If it is caused by diabetes, the treatment is focused on better control of the diabetes.

  • If the cause is a vitamin deficiency, your provider may prescribe vitamin supplements.

The symptoms of neuropathy can be treated with medicines that decrease nerve conduction. For example, gabapentin (Neurontin) can help relieve pain.

Other possible treatments for chronic nerve pain are:

  • biofeedback (a method of controlling your body's responses with your mind)

  • electronic nerve stimulation devices

  • shots of local anesthetics, steroids, or other chemicals to block pain signals or decrease inflammation

  • in severe cases, surgery to cut the nerve causing the pain.

How long will the effects last?

Peripheral neuropathy caused by an injury usually lasts from a few days to several weeks, depending on the injury. Neuropathy due to diabetes and other chronic diseases tends to not go away completely, but it may improve with treatment of the underlying problem. Neuropathy caused by a viral infection is less predictable. It may or may not go away with time. How can I take care of myself?

If the cause of your neuropathy is a disease, such as diabetes, the best way to take care of yourself is to follow your health care provider's advice and take your medicines as prescribed. If the cause of your neuropathy is an injury, the best thing you can do is to try to protect that body part from further injury.

How can I help prevent neuropathy?

Sometimes it is hard to avoid injuries that cause neuropathy. If it is caused by a disease, proper treatment of the disease is the best means of prevention. Follow your health care provider's advice and take your medicines as prescribed.

For more information contact the Neuropathy Association at 713-862-9332 or visit their Web site: