Overview of Peripheral Neuropathy

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What Is Peripheral Neuropathy?

Neuropathy is a type of nerve damage. Peripheral nerves are thin structures located in your arms, legs and throughout your body. If you have been told that you have neuropathy, you are likely wondering what to expect.

Nerves play an important role in the body. There are two major types of nerves that send and receive different types of messages. Motor nerves tell muscles to move and sensory nerves receive input from various locations of the body, sending messages to the brain about the body’s sensations, such as hot and cold, pain and touch. These messages travel through an electrical stimulus that can rapidly send a message from one area of the body to another through the brain, spinal cord, and nerves.

Peripheral neuropathy occurs when a nerve or the myelin covering that protects a nerve becomes damaged. Here are some of the symptoms of peripheral neuropathy.

Sensory changes

Peripheral neuropathy can cause in changes in sensation or weakness.

Sensory changes may include a lack of sensation or unusual sensations such as pain, tingling, burning, numbness or even crawling sensations. Often, peripheral neuropathy causes hypersensitivity, which is an exaggerated, usually uncomfortable perception of otherwise mild contact.

You might begin to notice balance problems if you have peripheral neuropathy. Balance problems caused by neuropathy are generally most noticeable when attempting to walk a straight line or to stand up with both feet next to each other. Neuropathy causes balance problems because the loss of sensation makes it difficult to sense where your feet are on the ground. This makes it difficult to do things that require good coordination, such as walking in a straight line.

Motor changes

Peripheral Neuropathy can also cause weakness of the affected arms or legs. Usually, this only occurs when neuropathy is advanced in severity. Peripheral neuropathy is usually considered a disease of both sides of the body, but it is common for one side to be worse than the other.

How Peripheral Neuropathy is Diagnosed

If you complain of hypersensitivity or if you have weakness on your physical examination, your doctor will check you for signs of peripheral neuropathy. If you have peripheral neuropathy your reflexes generally do not move as briskly as normal. This often helps doctors differentiate between conditions such as peripheral neuropathy and conditions that involve the brain or spinal cord, such as stroke or multiple sclerosis.

Diagnostic tests called Electromyography (EMG) and Nerve Conduction Study (NCV) demonstrate nerve abnormalities in neuropathy. Brain and spine imaging studies do not show abnormalities associated with neuropathy.

Your doctor may request some blood tests to help determine the cause of your neuropathy, and the results can help direct the treatment plan.

The Differences Between Stroke and Peripheral Neuropathy

When nerves are damaged, the symptoms can be quite diverse. The symptoms of a stroke are also diverse. Neuropathy can cause symptoms that seem similar to the symptoms of a stroke. So it is natural to confuse the two conditions because many of the symptoms of peripheral neuropathy and stroke overlap. 

The main differences between stroke and peripheral neuropathy are:

  • Timing: A stroke is much more dangerous than neuropathy and usually occurs suddenly. Neuropathy on the other hand, while a serious medical condition, is generally not a dangerous emergency and develops over a longer period of time than a stroke does.
  • Associated Symptoms: Another important difference between neuropathy and stroke is that neuropathy does not directly cause some of the symptoms that are commonly associated with strokes, such as headaches, dizziness or vision changes.
  • Cause: Neuropathy is caused by nerve disease, which occurs outside the brain, while a stroke is caused by inadequate blood flow in the brain itself.

Long-Term Effects of Peripheral Neuropathy

The biggest problems with peripheral neuropathy are the long-term problems. People with peripheral neuropathy cannot adequately feel pain in the feet or hands, so when the hands, fingers, feet or toes become injured or cut, a person who has neuropathy might not even realize it. Bleeding, scabs, and even infections can result when injuries go unnoticed.

Long-term problems of stroke are quite different and can include muscle atrophy and muscle stiffness.

Causes of Peripheral Neuropathy

There are many causes of peripheral neuropathy, such as diabetes, medications, chemotherapy, kidney failure, chronic alcohol use, vitamin b12 deficiency, and some infections.

One of the most severe types of neuropathy is Guillan Barre Syndrome, also called acute demyelinating polyneuropathy. This dangerous disease is characterized by a quickly progressive tingling and weakness, usually beginning in the feet, with rapidly ascending weakness of the legs and eventually, weakness of the muscles that control breathing, causing severe, life-threatening respiratory problems.

Treatment of Peripheral Neuropathy

Neuropathy is very difficult to treat. The most effective treatment is to control the cause - whether it is alcohol, diabetes or medication. In some cases, if neuropathy is diagnosed early, medically managing the cause can reverse some or most of the symptoms. Medication for the pain and discomfort caused by peripheral neuropathy is helpful for most patients.

A Word from Verywell

Peripheral neuropathy is a fairly common condition with a variety of causes. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy, there are a number of medical treatments that can help reduce pain and discomfort. You might also need to participate in physical therapy if you are experiencing weakness or balance problems. Additionally, treatment tailored to the cause of your neuropathy can help prevent your neuropathy from getting worse.

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