Peripheral Neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy describes damage to the peripheral nervous system, the vast communications network that transmits information from the brain and spinal cord (the central nervous system) to every other part of the body. Peripheral nerves also send sensory information back to the brain and spinal cord, such as a message that the feet are cold or a finger is burned. Damage to the peripheral nervous system interferes with these vital connections. Like static on a telephone line, peripheral neuropathy distorts and sometimes interrupts messages between the brain and the rest of the body.

Because every peripheral nerve has a highly specialized function in a specific part of the body, a wide array of symptoms can occur when nerves are damaged. Some people may experience temporary numbness, pricking sensations (paresthesia), sensitivity to touch or muscle weakness. Others may suffer more extreme symptoms, including burning pain (especially at night), muscle wasting, paralysis or dysfunction of organs or glands. People may become unable to digest food easily, maintain safe levels of blood pressure, sweat normally or experience normal sexual function. In the most extreme cases, breathing may become difficult, or organ failure may occur.

Some forms of neuropathy involve damage to only one nerve and are called mononeuropathies. More often, though, multiple nerves are damaged. This is called polyneuropathy. Occasionally, two or more isolated nerves in separate areas of the body are called mononeuritis multiplex.

In acute neuropathies, such as Guillain-Barré syndrome, symptoms appear suddenly, progress rapidly and resolve slowly as damaged nerves heal. In chronic forms, symptoms begin subtly and progress slowly. Some people may have periods of relief followed by relapse. Others may reach a plateau stage where symptoms stay the same for many months or years. Some chronic neuropathies worsen over time, but very few forms are fatal unless they are complicated by other diseases. Occasionally, the neuropathy is a symptom of another disorder.

In the most common forms of polyneuropathy, the nerve fibers (individual cells that make up the nerve) most distant from the brain and the spinal cord malfunction first. Pain and other symptoms often appear symmetrically. For example, pain may start in both feet and gradually progress up both legs. Next, the fingers, hands  and arms may become affected, and symptoms can progress into the central part of the body. Many people with diabetic neuropathy experience this pattern of ascending nerve damage.

What are the symptoms of peripheral nerve damage?

Symptoms are related to the type of affected nerve and may be seen over a period of days, weeks or years. Muscle weakness is the most common symptom of motor nerve damage. Other symptoms may include painful cramps, fasciculations (uncontrolled muscle twitching that is visible under the skin), muscle loss, bone degeneration and changes in the skin, hair and nails. These general degenerative changes also can result from sensory or autonomic nerve fiber loss.

Sensory nerve damage causes a more complex range of symptoms because sensory nerves have a wider, more highly specialized range of functions. Larger sensory fibers enclosed in myelin (a fatty protein that coats and insulates many nerves) register vibration, light touch, and position sense. Damage to large sensory fibers lessens the ability to feel vibrations and touch, resulting in a general sense of numbness, especially in the hands and feet. People may feel as if they are wearing gloves and stockings even when they are not. Many patients cannot recognize by touch alone the shapes of small objects or distinguish between different shapes. This damage to sensory fibers may contribute to the loss of reflexes (as can motor nerve damage). Loss of position sense often makes people unable to coordinate complex movements like walking or fastening buttons, or to maintain their balance when their eyes are shut. Neuropathic pain is difficult to control and can seriously affect emotional well-being and overall quality of life. Neuropathic pain is often worse at night, seriously disrupting sleep and adding to the emotional burden of sensory nerve damage.

Smaller sensory fibers without myelin sheaths transmit pain and temperature sensations. Damage to these fibers can interfere with the ability to feel pain or changes in temperature. People may fail to sense that they have been injured from a cut or that a wound is becoming infected. Others may not detect pains that warn of impending heart attack or other acute conditions. (Loss of pain sensation is a particularly serious problem for people with diabetes, contributing to the high rate of lower limb amputations among this population.) Pain receptors in the skin can also become oversensitized, so that people may feel severe pain (allodynia) from stimuli that are normally painless (for example, some may experience pain from bed sheets draped lightly over the body).

Symptoms of autonomic nerve damage are diverse and depend upon which organs or glands are affected. Autonomic nerve dysfunction can become life threatening and may require emergency medical care in cases when breathing becomes impaired or when the heart begins beating irregularly. Common symptoms of autonomic nerve damage include an inability to sweat normally, which may lead to heat intolerance; a loss of bladder control, which may cause infection or incontinence; and an inability to control muscles that expand or contract blood vessels to maintain safe blood pressure levels. A loss of control over blood pressure can cause dizziness, lightheadedness, or even fainting when a person moves suddenly from a seated to a standing position (a condition known as postural or orthostatic hypotension).

Gastrointestinal symptoms frequently accompany autonomic neuropathy. Nerves controlling intestinal muscle contractions often malfunction, leading to diarrhea, constipation, or incontinence. Many people also have problems eating or swallowing if certain autonomic nerves are affected.

What treatments are available?

No medical treatments now exist that can cure inherited peripheral neuropathy. However, there are therapies for many other forms. Any underlying condition is treated first, followed by symptomatic treatment. Peripheral nerves have the ability to regenerate, as long as the nerve cell itself has not been killed. Symptoms often can be controlled, and eliminating the causes of specific forms of neuropathy often can prevent new damage.

In general, adopting healthy habits-such as maintaining optimal weight, avoiding exposure to toxins, following a physician-supervised exercise program, eating a balanced diet, correcting vitamin deficiencies, and limiting or avoiding alcohol consumption-can reduce the physical and emotional effects of peripheral neuropathy. Active and passive forms of exercise can reduce cramps, improve muscle strength, and prevent muscle wasting in paralyzed limbs. Various dietary strategies can improve gastrointestinal symptoms. Timely treatment of injury can help prevent permanent damage. Quitting smoking is particularly important because smoking constricts the blood vessels that supply nutrients to the peripheral nerves and can worsen neuropathic symptoms. Self-care skills such as meticulous foot care and careful wound treatment in people with diabetes and others who have an impaired ability to feel pain can alleviate symptoms and improve quality of life. Such changes often create conditions that encourage nerve regeneration.

Systemic diseases frequently require more complex treatments. Strict control of blood glucose levels has been shown to reduce neuropathic symptoms and help people with diabetic neuropathy avoid further nerve damage. Inflammatory and autoimmune conditions leading to neuropathy can be controlled in several ways. Immunosuppressive drugs such as prednisone, cyclosporine, or azathioprine may be beneficial. Plasmapheresis–a procedure in which blood is removed, cleansed of immune system cells and antibodies and then returned to the body–can limit inflammation or suppress immune system activity. High doses of immunoglobulins, proteins that function as antibodies, also can suppress abnormal immune system activity.

Neuropathic pain is often difficult to control. Mild pain may sometimes be alleviated by analgesics sold over-the-counter. Several classes of drugs have recently proved helpful to many patients suffering from more severe forms of chronic neuropathic pain. These include mexiletine, a drug developed to correct irregular heart rhythms (sometimes associated with severe side effects); several antiepileptic drugs such as gabapentin, phenytoin and carbamazepine; and some classes of antidepressants. Injections of local anesthetics like lidocaine may relieve more intractable pain. In the most severe cases, doctors can surgically destroy nerves. However, the results are often temporary, and the procedure can lead to complications.

Mechanical aids can help reduce pain and lessen the impact of physical disability. Hand or foot braces can compensate for muscle weakness or alleviate nerve compression. Orthopedic shoes can improve gait disturbances and help prevent foot injuries in people with loss of pain sensation. If breathing becomes severely impaired, mechanical ventilation can provide essential life support.

Surgical intervention often can provide immediate relief from mononeuropathies caused by compression or entrapment injuries. Repair of a slipped disk can reduce pressure on nerves where they emerge from the spinal cord; the removal of benign or malignant tumors can also alleviate damaging pressure on nerves. Nerve entrapment often can be corrected by the surgical release of ligaments or tendons.