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Peripheral neuropathies

Explore the causes of damage to the peripheral nervous system and how it can be treated


The peripheral nervous system is the network of nerves that exist outside the central nervous system. Damage to peripheral nerves can cause weakness, numbness and pain at the body's extremities such as your hands and feet. Other areas of the body can also be affected.

Peripheral neuropathy is damage to the peripheral nervous system, causing numbness, shooting pain, muscle weakness or loss of co-ordination. It is most commonly caused by diabetes, although can occur for a variety of other reasons.

Your peripheral nervous system sends information from your brain and spinal cord (central nervous system) to the rest of your body. It includes different types of nerves with their own specific functions. These include:

  • sensory nerves which are responsible for transmitting sensations, such as pain and touch
  • motor nerves which are responsible for controlling muscles
  • autonomic nerves which are responsible for regulating automatic functions of the body, such as blood pressure and bladder function.

Symptoms of peripheral neuropathy.

The pain can be described as tingling, throbbing, burning or jabbing. In many cases, symptoms improve, especially if caused by a treatable condition.

A gradual feeling of numbness, prickling or tingling in your feet or hands can spread upward into your legs and arms.

Some patients experience extreme sensitivity to touch, lack of coordination and falling.

If motor nerves are affected the symptoms may include muscle weakness or paralysis.

Signs and symptoms, if autonomic nerves are affected, may include:

  • numbness and tingling in the feet or hands
  • burning, stabbing or shooting pain in affected areas
  • loss of balance and co-ordination
  • muscle weakness, especially in the feet
  • heat intolerance and altered sweating
  • bowel, bladder or digestive problems
  • changes in blood pressure, causing dizziness or light-headedness.

Some of these symptoms may be constant, but may come and go. Peripheral neuropathy can affect one nerve (mono-neuropathy), two or more nerves in different areas (multiple mono-neuropathy) or many nerves (polyneuropathy).

A typical example of mono-neuropathy is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Most people with peripheral neuropathy have polyneuropathy.

Peripheral neuropathy can follow traumatic injuries, infections, metabolic problems, inherited reasons and exposure to toxins. Peripheral neuropathy can be a common consequence of diabetes mellitus.

There are a variety of medications that can treat peripheral neuropathy, yet the most important task in treatment is identifying the underlying cause. This can then be aggressively treated, while the symptoms are managed through a combination of physiotherapy and osteopathy.

Due to the complex nature of peripheral neuropathies, it may take some time to find a programme of medication and therapy that effectively manages your symptoms.

Medications can reduce the pain of peripheral neuropathy.

It is important to see medical advice straight away if you notice unusual tingling, weakness or pain in your hands or feet. Early diagnosis and treatment offer the best chance for managing your symptoms and preventing further damage to your peripheral nerves.

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