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Neurosciences and Behavioral Health Center

Peripheral Neuropathy

An image showing the bones and nerves of the foot, with the peripheral nerves in the foot labeled.
Peripheral Nerves of the Foot
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Peripheral neuropathy damages the peripheral nerves. These nerves connect your spinal cord to the rest of your body.

Peripheral neuropathy may occur due to:

  • Trauma from nerve compression or inflammation
  • Certain medications, such as chemotherapy for cancer
  • Vitamin deficiencies
  • Hereditary syndromes
  • Exposure to environmental toxins and heavy metals (such as lead, mercury or pesticides)
  • Exposure to cold or radiation
  • Prolonged treatment in the intensive care unit

Health conditions that can damage peripheral nerves include:

  • Type 1 or type 2 diabetes
  • Infections (such as Lyme disease), cancer or HIV
  • Chronic kidney failure
  • Alcoholism
  • Autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis

Symptoms of Peripheral Neuropathy

Damage to the peripheral nerves often results in sensory and motor symptoms in your extremities or move towards your trunk, depending on which nerves are affected.

Symptoms can range from mild to severe and may seem worse at night. They include:

  • Numbness or reduced sensation
  • Tingling
  • Pain, often a burning or sharp, cutting sensation
  • Sensitivity to touch
  • Muscle twitches
  • Muscle weakness
  • Difficulty with walking
  • Loss of coordination or balance
  • Paralysis

If untreated, peripheral neuropathy can lead to:

  • Loss of reflexes and muscle control
  • Muscle atrophy — loss of muscle bulk
  • Foot deformities
  • Foot injuries that go unnoticed and become infected

You can also develop autonomic neuropathy, which happens when damage occurs to nerves that control everyday bodily functions, causing:

  • Blood pressure regulation problems
  • Constipation
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Difficulty breathing

Diagnosing Peripheral Neuropathy

We will examine:

  • Muscle strength
  • Reflexes
  • Balance
  • Coordination
  • Ability to feel vibration, temperature, and light touch
  • Sensation in the feet using a fine, flexible wire

We may also need to:

  • Test bodily fluids and tissues
  • Perform genetic testing
  • Analyze nerve fiber density
  • Conduct nerve and muscle tests
  • Get MRI or CT scans

Treatment Options for Neuropathy

Controlling the Cause

Treating the underlying illness can decrease symptoms or make them go away. For instance, controlling blood sugar levels may help if diabetes is causing the neuropathy. In some cases, avoiding medications or problematic substances completely reverses the neuropathy they’ve caused. Correction of vitamin B12 deficiency often improves symptoms.

Physical Therapy

Certain exercises may help stretch shortened or contracted muscles and increase joint flexibility. In long-standing cases, splinting the joint may be required to protect and rest it, while maintaining proper alignment.

Orthotics, such as supports and braces, may help with:

  • Deformities
  • Balance issues
  • Muscle weakness

Maintaining physical activity is also important.

Medications

Prescription and over-the-counter pain medications often ease discomfort.

Medications used to treat depression and prevent convulsions can relieve neuropathy symptoms.

Therapies to Reduce Symptoms

We can help you find ways to manage symptoms with:

  • Relaxation training
  • Biofeedback
  • Walking and other exercise
  • Yoga
  • Massage
  • Acupuncture
  • Transcutaneous electronic nerve (TENS unit) stimulation

Surgery

Surgery can relieve the pressure on nerves. For example, surgeons commonly release fibrous bands in the wrist to treat carpal tunnel syndrome.

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Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.

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