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Neuropathy occurs in the feet or hands due to nerve damage. When a patient suffers from neuropathy, they can experience so-called neuropathic pain ranging from mild to severe and described as burning, pinpricks, or sudden shocks of electricity, as well as numbness, tingling, and weakness. The peripheral nervous system utilizes nerves to send messages to and from the central nervous system, which includes both the brain and spinal cord. When these peripheral nerves become damaged and their ability to transmit signals, neuropathy results. Although neuropathy is an encompassing diagnosis, there are many causes.

Diabetes

Diabetes can cause chronic neuropathy. High blood sugar levels can damage nerves, predominantly in the feet. This is why neuropathy more often occurs in people whose blood sugar is not under control than those who maintain low blood sugar levels. Diabetic neuropathy as a result of uncontrolled blood glucose levels can create irreversible damage to the nerves. When diabetes is under control, the amount of sugar in the blood remains at a safe level, thus reducing the risk of potential nerve damage.

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B12 Vitamin Deficiency

A vitamin B12 deficiency can wreak havoc on the entire body, leading to symptoms such as lightheadedness, general weakness or lack of energy, shortness of breath, muscle aches, and heart palpitations. A lack of vitamin B12 can also cause neuropathy. The protective layer around the nerves, the myelin sheath, quickly becomes damaged when there is insufficient B12. Without this layer of protection, the nerves may stop functioning properly, resulting in neuropathy.

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Chemotherapy

Experts break down neuropathy into two categories: mononeuropathy and polyneuropathy. The former affects only one nerve, while the latter affects many nerves at the same time. The effects of chemotherapy can damage many nerves throughout the body; radiation treatment can have a similar effect. The good news is that many patients recover from some of the damage associated with chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy after the treatments are complete.

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Toxins

Sometimes toxins or poisons, including insecticides and pesticides, can lead to neuropathy, especially when a person is exposed to larger qualities of these chemicals, through farm work, for example. Exposure to chemicals in the workplace, especially over a long period, can cause nerve damage. Common culprits include mercury, lead, thallium, and arsenic. Recreational drugs containing certain chemicals can also cause neuropathy.

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Cancer

Some types of cancer can cause neuropathy, particularly cancers that affect the nervous system. Tumors that grow in or near the brain or spine, especially, can lead to nerve damage. However, any cancer that causes the growth of tumors can lead to neuropathy if, as the tumor grows, it presses on the nerves.

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Injuries

After diabetes, an injury is the next most common cause of neuropathy. When trauma damages a muscle or tissue, the surrounding tissues begin to swell, which can damage the nerves. Similarly, when a bone breaks, the broken edges or bone fragments can easily damage the nerves. This is why it is imperative to see a physician as soon as possible when following an injury. Walking around on an untreated broken ankle will raise the risk of neuropathy.

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Infection

Some infections can directly cause neuropathy. Those that produce a significant inflammatory response are the primary cause of inflammatory neuropathy. In this case, as the immune system strives to heal the body, it may mistakenly attack the nerves and the nervous system, as well. Problematic infections include Lyme disease, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and shingles. Symptoms of neuropathy typically improve once the infection is under control or has been eradicated. However, in more severe cases, some symptoms of neuropathy may persist long term.

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Kidney Disease

Another possible cause of neuropathy is kidney disease, which develops when the kidneys are unable to perform their essential job of removing waste from the body. As a result, waste and excess fluids build up and, when the kidneys fail, nerves damaged by an imbalance of chemicals and the salts in the body can cause neuropathy.

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Inflammatory Diseases

Inflammatory diseases such as sarcoidosis and celiac disease can cause neuropathy. Many medical professionals consider neuropathy an early warning sign of Celiac disease. This autoimmune inflammatory disease causes damage to the small projections that line the intestines, called villi. When a person with this disease continues to eat foods containing gluten, the villi begin to shorten and flatten, causing many health problems, including neuropathy.

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Idiopathic

Idiopathic peripheral neuropathy is a type of neuropathy for which the cause is unknown. In today's age of scientific testing and advancements, this is rare. Patients with this type of neuropathy can undergo the same treatments as those for whom a cause has been identified, but more trial and error may be necessary to find the most beneficial treatment.

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Alcoholism and Neuropathy

Another potential cause of neuropathy is alcohol. Around 46 percent of people who chronically consume alcohol eventually develop a condition called alcoholic neuropathy. The exact mechanics behind this are unknown.

Some experts believe that heavy and long-term alcohol consumption directly harms the nerves, impacting their ability to function. Researchers also point out that heavy alcohol use has links to poor nutrition, and vitamin deficiencies could also play a role.

Woman serving red wine in a winery alvarez / Getty Images

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Autoimmune Disorders

Many autoimmune conditions can involve some form of neuropathy, each with a broad range of symptoms. How these neuropathies develop is as diverse as the diseases themselves. Type 1 diabetes, for example, causes high blood glucose and triglyceride levels that damage the nerves.

Many other conditions can promote inflammation of the nerves themselves or the surrounding tissues, damaging the nerves.

Type 1 Diabetes management AMR Image / Getty Images

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HIV/AIDS and Neuropathy

HIV slowly destroys the body's immune system, leaving people vulnerable to life-threatening cancers, infections, and complications. Nerves often suffer damage as a result of HIV battling the body, leading to neurological problems like neuropathy.

If HIV progresses to AIDS, the damage can be far more severe. Neuropathy is most common in people with advanced AIDS, but it can technically occur at any stage.

HIV blood test tube and prescription Eugen Barbu / 500px / Getty Images

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Hereditary Neuropathy

Some of the least understood neuropathies are those that people inherit, such as Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. Hereditary neuropathies typically fall into four categories: motor and sensory neuropathy, sensory neuropathy, motor neuropathy, and sensory and autonomic neuropathy. Each type causes different symptoms, ranging from numbness and tingling to hypothesis and pain insensitivity.

Because so much remains unknown about these conditions, there are no standard treatments.

Portrait of elderly father and adult son walking andreswd / Getty Images

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Diagnosis and Detection Methods

Diagnosing neuropathies typically takes a combination of methods. The process usually begins with observing symptoms and taking a detailed medical history. Doctors may also ask about nutrition, activity levels, and other habits. Both physical and neurological exams are also common.

A healthcare provider will look for physical signs of neuropathy, like weakness or changes in reflexes or balance. If necessary, technicians will also perform a variety of lab, diagnostic, and imaging tests to find any other potential signs of neuropathy.

Cancer Patient Having a Check-Up FatCamera / Getty Images

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Treatment Options for Neuropathy

The choices for treating neuropathy are largely dependent on the origin of the condition. Painkillers are extremely common and may include opioids, gabapentinoids, or even topical treatments. In some cases, doctors may even use botulinum toxin to numb the pain in certain areas.

However, current treatment methods often carry serious side effects, limiting their use.

A serious young woman holding a bottle of medicines Milko / Getty Images

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Living with Neuropathy: Management and Coping Mechanisms

Sometimes, living with neuropathy is immensely difficult. Learning how to cope with and manage the condition is key. Healthy lifestyle steps like quitting smoking, treating injuries, and taking meticulous care of feet and hands are the best ways to limit pain and avoid complications.

Gentle massages may help improve circulation and temporarily relieve pain. Mechanical aids, braces, and orthopedic shoes also help reduce pressure and alleviate symptoms.

Woman creaming her hands, partial view Westend61 / Getty Images

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Research and Future Prospects in Neuropathy Treatment

Researchers are constantly performing studies and tests to learn more about neuropathies. Experts have discovered unique genetic mutations that contribute to over 80 distinct hereditary neuropathies. Other scientists are working on improving tests to better identify conditions responsible for these neuropathies, leading to earlier diagnoses and better treatments.

Clinical trials of various drugs and medications targeting specific neuropathies are constantly progressing, aiming to help those with the diseases.

Research scientist analyzing a sample, looking into a microscope, conducting an experiment. Male biologist or chemist working on a futuristic medical development in a laboratory. Sean Anthony Eddy / Getty Images

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Complications of Neuropathy

Each form of neuropathy carries many possible complications. When experiencing a lack of sensation, injuries and burns become far more common and often go without treatment. In turn, this leads to frequent and severe infections. Loss of sensation and weakness can also contribute to more falls.

Furthermore, people with neuropathies are prone to developing conditions like depression and anxiety, leading to suicidal thoughts. Speaking with a mental health professional is often the best course of action in these cases.

Sad businessman sitting head in hands on the bed in the dark bedroom with low light environment, dramatic concept, vintage tone color Tzido / Getty Images

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Preventive Measures Against Neuropathy

In many ways, prevention is the best "treatment" for neuropathy. However, many neuropathies stem from conditions that are difficult to avoid.

  • Wearing the appropriate safety gear for every situation can help prevent issues.
  • Unnecessary surgeries and procedures may cause neuropathy, as well.
  • Because conditions like shingles can include neuropathy as a symptom, receiving the vaccine is an effective prevention method.
  • Practicing healthy habits can ward off conditions like diabetes, limiting the chances of developing neuropathy.

vaccination Jackyenjoyphotography / Getty Images

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Hearing Disturbances

In some cases of peripheral neuropathy, individuals may experience hearing disturbances. This symptom can manifest as a ringing or buzzing sensation in the ears, known as tinnitus. Peripheral neuropathy can affect the nerves responsible for auditory function, leading to these disturbances. While not as common as other symptoms, it's crucial to recognize that peripheral neuropathy can have diverse manifestations, and hearing disturbances may be one of them.

Tinnitus concept. Close up up of sick young caucasian female touch plug ear suffer from noisy disturbing sound sitting on sofa at home. Annoyed millennial lady having earache, hearing problems

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Temperature Sensitivity

Individuals with peripheral neuropathy may become highly sensitive to temperature changes. They may experience heightened sensitivity to cold or heat, leading to discomfort and difficulty regulating body temperature. This sensitivity is due to the involvement of nerves responsible for temperature perception called small fiber nerves. Managing temperature sensitivity can be challenging, and it's crucial for individuals with peripheral neuropathy to take measures to maintain their comfort and well-being.

Sensitivity to temperature

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Sleep Disturbances

Peripheral neuropathy can disrupt sleep patterns, causing difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep. Individuals may experience frequent awakenings throughout the night due to discomfort or pain associated with the condition. Things that are normally painless, like the touch of a pillow or bedsheet, can cause extreme pain. Sometimes, there may be no trigger at all. Sleep disturbances can exacerbate other symptoms and affect overall quality of life. Proper sleep hygiene and consult a healthcare provider for symptom management are crucial for those experiencing sleep disturbances due to peripheral neuropathy.

young man in bed with eyes opened suffering insomnia and sleep disorder thinking about his problem

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Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)

Peripheral neuropathy can lead to the development of restless leg syndrome (RLS) in some individuals. RLS is a nervous system disorder characterized by an uncontrollable urge to move the legs, often accompanied by uncomfortable sensations such as tingling or crawling. These sensations tend to worsen when at rest, making it difficult for affected individuals to relax and sleep. Managing RLS in the context of peripheral neuropathy may involve lifestyle changes and medications to alleviate these distressing symptoms.

Man With RLS - Restless Legs Syndrome. Sleeping In Bed

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Speech Difficulties

In some rare instances, peripheral neuropathy can affect the nerves responsible for controlling speech. Individuals may encounter difficulties articulating words, experience slurred speech, or struggle with pronouncing certain sounds. These speech-related issues can be challenging to cope with and may require speech therapy to improve communication.

Healthcare concept about DIFFICULTY WITH SPEECH with sign on the page.

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This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.