What Is Peripheral Neuropathy?

tingling, numbness, or pain in the feet and legs
January 19, 2024

You may have heard the term “peripheral neuropathy” from your doctor if you went in with complaints of tingling or numbness in your feet or legs. Or it may have come up in an internet search as you tried to track down a cause for your symptoms. But what is it? Simply put, peripheral neuropathy is damage to the network of nerves that takes information from your central nervous system—your brain and spinal cord—to the rest of your body.

When those peripheral nerves are damaged, it can cause of range of symptoms that may be mistaken for other medical conditions. However, it is important to get an accurate diagnosis as soon as possible. While peripheral neuropathy generally can’t be cured, lifestyle changes and treatment can prevent further damage and help alleviate symptoms.

Types and Causes of Peripheral Neuropathy

More than 100 different types of peripheral neuropathy have been identified. They are broken down into four categories to aid in diagnosis:

  • Motor neuropathy: Damage to the nerves that control muscles and movement.
  • Sensory neuropathy: Damage to the nerves that control feeling (i.e., pain, temperature, touch, pressure, etc.).
  • Autonomic neuropathy: Damage to the nerves that control functions you do not consciously direct, such as your breathing, heartbeat, and digestion.
  • Combination neuropathy: A mix of 2 or 3 types of neuropathies, for example a sensory-motor neuropathy.

Peripheral neuropathy can have many different causes. Some forms are caused by inherited genetic disorders, while others occur as the result of injuries or another illness. For example, kidney disorders or hormone imbalances may lead to peripheral neuropathy as side effect. Celiac disease and sensitivities or intolerances to gluten or wheat can also trigger neuropathy. In the U.S., diabetes is one of the most common causes of peripheral neuropathy.

Symptoms of Peripheral Neuropathy

The symptoms of peripheral neuropathy can vary depending on which nerves and which part of the body is affected. They can include:

  • Muscle weakness, twitching, or cramping
  • Numbness or loss of sensation
  • Loss of pain that can make you unaware of injury
  • Loss of muscle and bone
  • Changes to skin, nails, or hair
  • Loss of balance

When neuropathy strikes the autonomic nerves, it can also result in bladder or bowel incontinence or trouble swallowing, breathing, or regulating blood pressure or heartbeat. Symptoms can vary from tingling or numbness to burning pain or paralysis; in some cases, the condition may come on rapidly, but often symptoms are mild to begin with and gradually increase in severity over time.

How Peripheral Neuropathy Affects the Feet and Legs

When peripheral neuropathy affects sensation in the feet and legs, it can make patients more vulnerable to sustaining injuries they don’t feel. For example, they may stub their toe on a table leg and not realize that the skin was split, or have a heel rubbed raw by poorly fitting shoes without noticing. If that wound then becomes infected—a heightened danger for patients who also have diabetes—it can potentially lead to sepsis or gangrene. Muscle weakness associated with neuropathy can also cause problems with walking and balance.

Managing and Treating Peripheral Neuropathy

If you have been diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy, the steps you take to support your overall health play a key role in slowing the progression of the condition and preventing complications. Diabetes must be carefully managed to keep blood sugar levels under control, as high blood glucose will continue to damage nerves. Positive lifestyle changes such as eating a healthy diet, quitting smoking, reducing alcohol intake, and maintaining a routine of regular physical activity can also help you feel your best as well as reducing uncomfortable symptoms. Medication may also be prescribed to minimize pain and tingling.

Regular foot checkups are another essential part of managing peripheral neuropathy and preserving your health. An experienced podiatrist will perform a thorough foot check to look for injuries or infections as well as teaching you how to effectively care for your feet at home. They may also prescribe special shoes or orthotics to keep your feet healthy and assist with balance. Prevention is the best strategy for avoiding potential complications of peripheral neuropathy, and your podiatrist is a critical ally in that fight.

Your Foot Care Resource

At Corona Foot & Ankle, we help patients with peripheral neuropathy and diabetes keep their feet healthy every day. Whether you need to schedule a checkup, or you need wound care for a stubborn injury that won’t heal, we have treatment options for you. Don’t wait until symptoms are too troublesome to ignore—contact us today to schedule your consultation.

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