older patient looking over musculoskeletal issue with doctor.

What is Peripheral Neuropathy and What Causes it?

The symptoms of peripheral neuropathy (aka neuropathy) are varied and often puzzling. They may involve strange prickling or tingling sensations, sharp sudden pain, extreme sensitivity to touch, or numbness. No wonder they can be disturbing or frightening to those who experience them. If you have been diagnosed with neuropathy, it is important to have a clear understanding of what is happening to you and why.

Although you may be surprised to be diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy, it is a common condition. The doctors at Long Island Spine Rehabilitation Medicine deal with patients who have neuropathy frequently. Because our nonsurgical practice focuses on pain management and restoration of function, we have a number of treatments, both traditional and complementary, to alleviate its troubling symptoms. 

At our offices, you will find competent, compassionate professionals prepared to ease your symptoms with a variety of treatments — including medications, physical therapy, acupuncture, and PEMF.

What Exactly is Peripheral Neuropathy?

The word neuropathy means damage or dysfunction of one or more nerves. In most cases, neuropathy begins in the extremities, but it can also affect other parts of the body. Peripheral means that this problem is related to the peripheral (not central) nervous system. The peripheral nervous system is the network of nerves outside of your brain and spinal cord.

Why are the Symptoms of Peripheral Neuropathy so Varied?

Symptoms of the disorder depend on which type of nerves are affected. There are three kinds of nerves: 

  • Sensory nerves that are receptors for temperature, touch, pain, and vibration
  • Motor nerves that control movement of the muscles
  • Autonomic nerves that control involuntary functions, such as heart rate or perspiration

Depending on which type of nerve is affected, symptoms can vary greatly.

The Broad Range of Neuropathy Symptoms

For some patients, symptoms of neuropathy develop over a period of years, while for others they appear suddenly. These symptoms may include:

  • Numbness, prickling, pins and needles sensation (typically in hands and/or feet)
  • Sharp, stabbing, burning or throbbing pain
  • Poor coordination and muscle weakness
  • Extreme sensitivity to touch (e.g. pain from the weight of a sheet on the toes)
  • Heat intolerance, extreme sweating or, conversely, inability to sweat
  • Phantom sensations (e.g. as if you have socks on when you don’t)
  • Drops in blood pressure that may cause dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Problems with digestion or sexual function

It is possible for even more disabling symptoms to result from neuropathy, for example, paralysis if motor nerves are affected or bowel or bladder dysfunctions if autonomic nerves are targeted.

What Causes Peripheral Neuropathy?

The most common causes of neuropathy are diabetes, metabolic syndrome ( a combination of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes), and alcoholism. As a matter of fact,  60 to 70 percent of diabetics develop peripheral neuropathy.

However, as shown below, the causes of neuropathy can be as varied as its symptoms, ranging from injury to heredity, from lifestyle habits to disease conditions. These causes include:

  • Dietary deficiencies, especially lack of B vitamins
  • Autoimmune diseases (e.g. diabetes, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis,)
  • Certain types of chemotherapy 
  • Exposure to lead, mercury, and other toxins
  • Some antibiotics, some antiseizure drugs)
  • Infections (e.g. Lyme disease, shingles, Epstein-Barr virus, hepatitis C, HIV)
  • Kidney, liver, thyroid, or connective tissue disease
  • Certain types of cancer, such as bone and bone marrow
  • Traumatic injuries that impact peripheral nerves 
  • Tumors (benign or malignant) that put pressure on nerves
  • Vascular disorders that deprive nerve cells of oxygen (possibly due to smoking)
  • Inherited disorders (most commonly, Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease) 

Age is a risk factor in neuropathy. Approximately 8 percent of those over the age of 65 will develop the condition. Also, individuals whose occupations necessitate constant repetitive motions that impact their nerves are prone to the problem. In some cases, as with so many medical disorders, the cause of neuropathy remains a mystery. These cases are designated as idiopathic (of unknown origin).

Contact Our Skilled Physiatrists for Help Managing Your Neuropathy

If you are suffering the challenges of peripheral neuropathy, you are by no means alone. Between 25 and 30 percent of Americans are plagued by the disorder. The sooner you call or connect with us online, the sooner we can make you feel more comfortable and more in control.