Peripheral neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy, a result of damage to your peripheral nerves, often causes weakness, numbness and pain, usually in your hands and feet. It can also affect other areas of your body.

Your peripheral nervous system sends information from your brain and spinal cord (central nervous system) to the rest of your body. Peripheral neuropathy can result from traumatic injuries, infections, metabolic problems, inherited causes and exposure to toxins. One of the most common causes is diabetes mellitus.

People with peripheral neuropathy generally describe the pain as stabbing or burning. Often, there's tingling. In many cases, symptoms improve, especially if caused by a treatable underlying condition. Medications can reduce the pain of peripheral neuropathy.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications Prevention

Every nerve in your peripheral system has a specific function, so symptoms depend on the type of nerves affected. Nerves are classified into:

  • Sensory nerves that receive sensation from the skin such as temperature, pain, vibration or touch
  • Motor nerves that control how your muscles move
  • Autonomic nerves that control functions such as blood pressure, heart rate, digestion and bladder

Signs and symptoms of peripheral neuropathy may include:

  • Gradual onset of numbness and tingling in your feet or hands, which may spread upward into your legs and arms
  • Sharp, jabbing or burning pain
  • Extreme sensitivity to touch
  • Lack of coordination and falling
  • Muscle weakness or paralysis if motor nerves are affected

If autonomic nerves are affected, signs and symptoms may include:

  • Heat intolerance and altered sweating
  • Bowel, bladder or digestive problems
  • Changes in blood pressure, causing dizziness or lightheadedness

Peripheral neuropathy may affect one nerve (mononeuropathy), two or more nerves in different areas (multiple mononeuropathy) or many nerves (polyneuropathy).

When to see a doctor

Seek medical care right away if you notice unusual tingling, weakness or pain in your hands or feet. Early diagnosis and treatment offer the best chance for controlling your symptoms and preventing further damage to your peripheral nerves.

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