What is Neuropathy?

Neuropathy is a general term that refers to a problem with the nerves. Neuropathy typically refers to the peripheral nerves, meaning nerves not within the brain or spinal cord. This common condition, affecting upwards of 20 million Americans, may be the result of a number of potential causes, though sometimes the reason for a patient suffering neuropathy is unknown.The most common cause of neuropathy, however, is diabetes. Other common causes of neuropathy include excessive alcohol consumption, deficiency in Vitamin B-12 or folate, use of certain aggressive medication plans (such as chemotherapy or HIV treatment), certain cancers, chronic kidney disease, exposure to certain toxins, chronic liver disease, injuries, severe infections, connective tissue diseases, certain chronic inflammatory conditions, and some hereditary diseases.

The term “neuropathy” is fairly generic. There are three types of nerves that may be affected, each leading to different types of symptoms. Sensory nerves control sensation and feeling, motor nerves control movement and power, and autonomic nerves control involuntary systems in the body. Common signs of sensory neuropathy, most noticeable in a specific area, may include:

  • Numbness or tingling

  • Hypersensitivity or a sensation of “pins and needles”

  • Increased pain or, conversely, a lowered ability to experience pain

  • Lowered ability to sense changes in heat or coldness

  • Decrease in coordination

  • Pains that may become more severe at night, and may be described as burning, stabbing, shooting, lancing, or piercing

  • Changes in the hair, skin, or nails

  • Foot or leg ulcers

Common signs of motor neuropathy may include:

  • Muscle weakness, leading to difficulty performing small controlled movements

  • Wasting away of muscle(s)

  • Twitching or cramps in the affected muscle(s)

  • Muscle paralysis

Common signs of autonomic neuropathy may include:

  • Sudden changes in blood pressure which may lead to dizziness or fainting

  • Racing heart

  • Reduced ability to perspire

  • Intolerance to heat

  • Loss of bladder function control

  • In men, difficulty achieving or maintaining an erection

Treatment of neuropathy often focuses on treating any identified underlying cause, managing the symptoms of the neuropathy, and stopping the neuropathy from becoming any worse. Your doctor may diagnose a neuropathy, or may refer you to a specialist. Your medical team will work with you to determine the cause of the neuropathy, as well as the best form of treatment.


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