Neuropathy, or peripheral neuropathy, describes a problem with the functionality of the peripheral nerves. These nerves are in charge of communication between the central nervous system and the rest of the body. Depending on the peripheral nerve affected, neuropathic pain can produce a broad range of symptoms of varying severity. In many instances, other health conditions can cause neuropathy, which means it can be a symptom as well as a disease.

Localized Pain

One of the main symptoms of neuropathy is a sharp, shooting pain sporadically within the legs. Some people experience a painful ache that occurs from a stimulus that should not hurt, such as a light touch. This symptom is typical of sensory neuropathy, where dysfunctional nerves create atypical feelings in the body.


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Numbness and Tingling

If peripheral neuropathy affects the sensory nerves, the individual may experience tingling and numbness in localized areas. This symptom happens because the nerves that carry sensory information, such as pain, temperature, or touch, are not performing optimally. Numbness usually occurs in the lower part of the body with a mounting loss of awareness of stimuli in the region. Some people also experience abnormal sensations, such as burning, tightness, shock-like sensations, or itching.


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Usually, peripheral neuropathy affects the motor nerves that power most movement across the body. In some instances, neuropathy can cause frequent muscle cramps that develop from even the smallest amount of exertion. This can sometimes impede daily activities. These cramps can be so painful that they require more relief than over-the-counter pain medication can offer.


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Impaired Balance

Peripheral neuropathy can also cause people to lose balance. This happens because receptors that sense where the body lies in space don't function as well in people with peripheral neuropathy. The brain depends on input from the feet and limbs to make adaptations that help maintain balance. Numbness in the feet and decreased sensation can mix up or weaken these signals.


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Weakening Muscles

When muscles become weak because the motor nerves have developed neuropathy, people often experience difficulty with small motions that require precision, such as buttoning a shirt and taking a lid off a jar. Lifting heavy objects may become more difficult or even impossible. In older adults, these symptoms often seem unrelated and go unnoticed because people assume they are simply experiencing the natural aging process.


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Gastric Problems

In some instances of peripheral neuropathy, people experience gastric problems that can cause digestive distress. They may experience changes in metabolism or regular diarrhea or constipation, bloating, and flatulence. These symptoms are a result of neuropathy involving the autonomic nerves, which are responsible for involuntary actions. Often, the true cause of gastric problems goes undetected when symptoms are relieved with medication. However, recurring digestive disorders can be a sign of autonomic neuropathy.


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Low Blood Pressure

The autonomic nerves also control blood pressure. If peripheral neuropathy disrupts autonomic nerves, a person can experience hypotension or low blood pressure. This can bring on many symptoms, including fatigue, dizziness, and palpitations, as well as nausea, blurred vision, and, in extreme cases, fainting. As with gastric problems, these symptoms of autonomic neuropathy tend to go undetected or be misdiagnosed.


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Risk Factors for Neuropathy

The most common type of neuropathy is diabetic peripheral neuropathy. It affects people with poorly managed blood sugar. Medical providers do not yet understand the risk factors of the second most experienced type of neuropathy, which is idiopathic peripheral neuropathy. Chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy afflicts about 10% of the US population


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Treating Neuropathy

Diagnosis and treatment of peripheral neuropathy rely mainly on what caused the nerve damage:

  • If a vitamin deficiency, medications, or alcohol abuse causes peripheral neuropathy, it can be treated or possibly reversed with vitamin therapy and an improved diet, along with the removal of the offending medication.
  • When neuropathy is related to diabetes, the person must carefully monitor blood sugar levels. Keeping on target with blood sugar may slow neuropathy progression and help curb symptoms. Treatment might only halt the development, though, and not entirely reverse the damage.
  • Extremely impaired neuropathy may require physical therapy to help regain strength and reduce muscle cramping and spasms.
  • For pain, doctors may prescribe analgesic medications.
  • Surgical treatment could be necessary for people with nerve damage from injury or nerve compression.
  • Mobility aids, such as a cane, walker, or wheelchair, can be beneficial. Tinpixels / Getty Images


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Preventing Neuropathy

Sticking to healthy habits, such as eating a nutritious diet, exercising on a regular basis, and avoiding excessive alcohol consumption, can help prevent nerve damage. Avoiding injurious activities and toxic chemicals and cautiously managing any other underlying issues, such as diabetes, can further reduce the risk of developing neuropathy.


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