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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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