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Understanding Peripheral Neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy, a result of damage to your peripheral nerves, often causes weakness, numbness and pain, usually in your hands and feet. It can also affect other areas of your body.

Your peripheral nervous system sends information from your brain and spinal cord (central nervous system) to the rest of your body. Peripheral neuropathy can result from traumatic injuries, infections, metabolic problems, inherited causes and exposure to toxins. One of the most common causes is diabetes mellitus.

People with peripheral neuropathy generally describe the pain as stabbing, burning or tingling. In many cases, symptoms improve, especially if caused by a treatable condition. Medications can reduce the pain of peripheral neuropathy.

Signs and symptoms might include:

  • Gradual onset of numbness, prickling or tingling in your feet or hands, which can spread upward into your legs and arms
  • Sharp, jabbing, throbbing, freezing or burning pain
  • Extreme sensitivity to touch
  • Lack of coordination and falling
  • Muscle weakness or paralysis if motor nerves are affected

When to see a doctor:

Seek medical care right away if you notice unusual tingling, weakness or pain in your hands or feet. Early diagnosis and treatment offer the best chance for controlling your symptoms and preventing further damage to your peripheral nerves.

Causes

Peripheral neuropathy is nerve damage caused by a number of conditions, including:

  • Autoimmune diseases.
  • Diabetes.
  • Exposure to poisons/toxins.
  • Medications, especially those used to treat cancer (chemotherapy), can cause peripheral neuropathy.
  • Infections. These include certain viral or bacterial infections, including Lyme disease, shingles, Epstein-Barr virus, hepatitis C, leprosy, diphtheria and HIV.
  • Inherited disorders. Disorders such as Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease are hereditary types of neuropathy.
  • Trauma or pressure on the nerve. Traumas, such as from motor vehicle accidents or falls
  • Tumors. Growths, cancerous (malignant) and noncancerous (benign), can develop on the nerves or press nerves.
  • Vitamin deficiencies. B vitamins
  • Other diseases. These include kidney disease, liver disease, connective tissue disorders and an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism).

Complications

Complications of peripheral neuropathy can include:

  • Burns and skin trauma. You might not feel temperature changes or pain on parts of your body that are numb.
  • Infection. Your feet and other areas lacking sensation can become injured without your knowing. Check these areas regularly and treat minor injuries before they become infected, especially if you have diabetes mellitus.
  • Falls. Weakness and loss of sensation may be associated with lack of balance and falling.
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