Nerves are behind every sensation a person experiences. They transmit information about pressure, pain, temperature, and texture, and networks of nerves also control movement throughout the body. Neuropathy refers to any condition that keeps these nerves from working properly. In the most extreme cases, this can cause paralysis of the affected area, but there are many forms of neuropathy that are less severe.
Many conditions can cause neuropathy. Injuries, trapped nerves, diabetes, Guillan-Barre Strohl Syndrome, ALS, arthritis, tumors, and even certain medications can contribute to nerve damage. Sometimes neuropathy is the first major sign of a serious illness. Treatment for neuropathy depends on the cause and may include medication, vitamin supplements, physical or occupational therapy, or even surgery. The longer nerve damage goes untreated, however, the more difficult it is to address. Neuropathy can lead to permanent loss of sensation or movement, but prompt medical treatment helps avoid these outcomes. Watching out for key symptoms can help people know when to seek medical help and prevent more serious nerve damage.
Peripheral neuropathy affects sensory nerves in the hands, arms, feet, and legs. It is the most common type of neuropathy for people with diabetes and it often starts with pins and needles in the affected body part. Tingling and a feeling like lightning shooting through the limb are also common. The sensation can be limited to a small area or it can affect multiple limbs at once. It may also be inconsistent, coming and going throughout the day.
While this symptom can be annoying, it is actually very valuable for helping doctors diagnose neuropathy early. If a person is experiencing tingling in an extremity, they should see their doctor.
Unpleasant burning, stabbing, and tingling sensations can become overwhelming for people with neuropathy. The pain may be associated with certain actions, like getting out of a chair, or it may come at random. Sometimes a person's skin is oversensitive to touch. The weight of bed sheets or a gentle kiss can feel unbearable.
People with neuropathic pain may struggle to sleep or connect with their loved ones. This can lead to depression and anxiety. There are medical treatments that can help, and those who experience chronic nerve pain may also benefit from reaching out to support groups.
Sometimes neuropathy will cause a sudden, complete loss of sensation in an affected area, but there are less extreme types of numbness as well. Some people describe feeling like they are wearing an invisible sock or glove. Sensations may feel weaker than usual. Temperature can also be affected; someone with neuropathy may not be able to feel the difference between warm and cold water.
Numbness may seem like a relief if that area was previously painful, but loss of sensation can be a serious problem. People can burn or cut themselves badly without noticing. They could also develop life-threatening infections. It's important to watch for signs of injury in the numb area.
Motor neuropathy is damage to nerves that control movement. People with motor neuropathy may find that certain muscles cramp up and cannot move. The muscle may feel stiff and painful to the touch. Entire sections of a person's body can spasm for extended periods of time.
An inverse problem could be that the muscles move without warning. Twitching arms and legs are not uncommon. This can be highly localized: some people can see a single muscle twitch beneath their skin. This can also take the form of a powerful, unexplainable urge to move. Neuropathy can make it impossible to sit still and unpredictable twitching can make daily tasks more challenging.
Over time, muscles affected by neuropathy can become thinner and lose their strength. The instructions from the brain through the damaged nerve may be weaker. It can be difficult for a person with this type of neuropathy to pick up objects, hold a cup in their hand, or even lift their toes to take a step.
Muscle weakness can progress if the neuropathy is not treated. Unused muscles can atrophy, meaning the muscle itself shrinks and becomes too thin to work properly. Luckily, there are treatments and therapies that can help prevent this. Even in cases where the nerve damage is irreversible, physical therapy can help people maintain muscle strength.
Neuropathy affects balance in many ways. Changes to the shape of the foot, such as unusually high arches and swollen, curling toes, can make walking difficult. People with neuropathy can't always lift their toes or control the movement of their arms. Sensory neuropathy can make it harder for people to sense the tiny adjustments they need to make to stay upright, while motor neuropathy keeps their body from performing the correct movements.
Dizziness and falling are serious symptoms. Not only are they signs of potentially severe nerve damage, but they can be dangerous in their own right. Those with loss of balance may need to take extra precautions and undergo physical therapy to stay safe.
Nerves don't only control conscious movement; they also guide automatic processes, like digestion. Autonomic neuropathy is a type of nerve damage that affects these processes. People with autonomic neuropathy may not feel the pain and loss of movement that other types of neuropathy cause. Instead, they may find that they are frequently nauseated and have difficulty keeping food down. Constipation and diarrhea may become issues, especially during the night. They may lose bowel control and be unable to urinate even when they feel the need to use the bathroom.
Some people find it hard to talk about these issues or may leave them out of the discussion because they don't seem relevant to nerve damage, but a doctor can use this information to recommend treatments that might help.
In most cases, neuropathy in itself is not life-threatening. One exception is when neuropathy affects nerves that control the heart. The condition or symptom can cause a racing heartbeat that can make a person to feel dizzy, breathless, or like there's a fluttering in their chest. They may even pass out.
A racing heart alone is not necessarily dangerous, but it should be monitored. If a person is cold to the touch, has clammy skin, seems confused, and has a rapid pulse, these can be signs of a life-threatening condition, and they need immediate medical attention.
Focal or optic neuropathy affects only a single nerve, and it can sometimes cause problems with eyesight. A person may struggle to focus their gaze or experience double vision. Damage to the optic nerve can also cause people to see flashing lights or dimmer colors, or lose their peripheral vision. Eye movement may trigger or intensify the pain. In extreme cases, a person can lose their vision entirely.
Optic neuropathy is sometimes associated with Bell's Palsy, a form of temporary facial paralysis that resolves gradually over time. An injury to the optic nerve can also affect vision. Sometimes this type of neuropathy needs specific treatment to avoid damaging the other eye.
Sex is driven by many aspects of the nervous system. Nerves guide the automatic processes of arousal, transmit pleasurable sensations to the brain, and direct sexual movements. For this reason, neuropathy can affect every aspect of sex.
Neuropathy can cause typically pleasurable touch to feel painful. Some people lose sensation in their genitals. Erectile dysfunction and vaginal dryness can be symptoms of neuropathy as well. In addition to the physical symptoms, loss of typical sexual function can damage relationships and impact self-esteem. Treating the cause of the neuropathy may help resolve these issues, and therapy can also be beneficial.
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