What’s Peripheral Neuropathy?

What is peripheral neuropathy

You’ve picked up your workout routine and are feeling great. Suddenly, you start noticing your feet are more tired and even numb at times. You buy better shoes and stretch more, but the numbness begins to inch its way up your leg. Now, you are experiencing pain.

You may be like the more than 20 million Americans who experience neuropathy, also called peripheral neuropathy (PN), which is a type of damage to the peripheral nervous system. This is the network of nerves that sends information from your brain and spinal cord (your central nervous system) to the rest of your body.

Neuropathy can affect one nerve or nerve type or a combination of nerves. When these nerves are damaged, signals get distorted and can affect sensory nerves, motor nerves and autonomic nerves that control functions such as blood pressure, heart rate and digestion.

John Sollenberger, DO, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at Banner – University Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Institute, shared the symptoms and causes for this disease and how best to treat it.

What Are the Symptoms?

People with PN can have a wide range of symptoms, including:

  • Burning or freezing pain
  • Numbness or tingling (‘pins and needles’ feeling)
  • Loss of balance and coordination
  • Muscle weakness, cramping or twitching
  • Difficulty walking
  • Abnormal blood pressure or pulse

Symptoms may develop over days, weeks or years. “In some cases, symptoms can improve on their own but others, if they are left untreated, can lead to further damage to the peripheral nerves and your body,” Dr. Sollenberger said.

What Causes Peripheral Neuropathy?

Doctors use an array of methods, including full body exams, MRIs, blood tests and nerve biopsies to determine the cause. However, there are more than 100 different types of PN.

“There are many different types of peripheral neuropathy, each with its own set of symptoms and prognosis,” Dr. Sollenberger said. “It can result from specific infections, autoimmune processes, toxin exposure (such as chemotherapy) or can be hereditary. Most commonly in developed countries, however, peripheral neuropathy is related to diabetes, alcoholism or thyroid disorders.”

If your lab tests indicate there is no underlying condition, your doctor may recommend waiting to see if symptoms improve. And, if exposure to toxins or alcohol are suspected causes, your doctor may recommend avoiding those substances to see if symptoms improve before prescribing medications or developing a treatment plan.

How Is It Treated?

“Although there is no definitive cure, there are things you can do to manage and improve your condition,” he said.

Some treatment options include the following:

Medications: Evidence-based oral “neuropathic” medications, such as antidepressants, anti-seizure medications, pain relievers and topical creams can help improve pain symptoms.

Therapies: There are various therapies and procedures that might help ease signs and symptoms, including the use of a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), plasma exchange and physical therapy.

“Movement-based therapies can assist with improved circulation, strength, stamina and balance,” Dr. Sollenberger said. “All of which helps with reactivating and improving peripheral nerve function and pain control.”

Good Foot Care: “Anytime there is impaired sensation to a body region, tissue damage can occur without the patient’s recognition,” Dr. Sollenberger warned. Those with PN can develop blisters, small abrasions or cuts on their feet, or they can step on a foreign body (e.g., glass, splinters or needle) and not be aware because of the loss of “protective” sensation in the area. This puts them at higher risk of infection or life-threatening systemic infection and/or amputation of the limb if not recognized early.

“Good foot care with daily foot inspections, including the bottom of the foot with use of a mirror can prevent such instances,” he added. “This is particularly important for those with diabetes.”

Surgery: In extreme cases, surgery can be used to destroy nerves or repair injuries that are causing pain or symptoms.

Alternative Treatments: Your doctor may suggest diet modifications, regular exercise and quitting the use of alcohol and tobacco. Some patients also benefit from acupuncture and taking certain vitamins and supplements, such as fish oil, alpha-lipoic acid and amino acids.

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms above or suffer from diabetes or a thyroid disorder, make sure you speak with your Banner Health medical provider to discuss symptoms and how best to prevent peripheral neuropathy. To find a specialist, visit bannerhealth.com.

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