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What is Peripheral Neuropathy?

Peripheral neuropathy is a medical condition in which the nerves that travel from the brain and spinal cord to the other parts of the body function improperly. It most commonly affects the nerves in the feet and legs.  People who suffer from peripheral neuropathy commonly experience burning, tingling, numbness and/or shooting pains in their feet and legs. These symptoms are usually worse at night.

Painful sensations, burning, tingling and/or numbness in the feet and legs affects more than 20 million people in the US, including more than 30% of people over 65 and more than 50% of people suffering from diabetes.  Relief from these symptoms is not easily found.  Most over-the-counter medications tend to be ineffective and most prescription products have significant side effects.

What are the symptoms of Peripheral Neuropathy?

People suffering from peripheral neuropathy commonly experience many of the following symptoms in their feet, legs and/or hands:

  • Sharp searing nerve pain
  • Tingling
  • Burning
  • Loss of sensation
  • Loss of balance
  • Leg cramps
  • Difficulty sleeping because of pain in the legs and feet
  • Muscle weakness

What are the causes of Peripheral Neuropathy?

There are well over 100 known causes of peripheral neuropathy. A partial list of these causes includes: diabetes, thiamine (also known as vitamin B1) deficiency, vitamin B12 deficiency, chronic alcoholism, trauma, exposure to toxins, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, adverse reactions to chemotherapy or drugs, infections, hereditary causes. Often no cause for the peripheral neuropathy can be determined. When no cause can be determined the neuropathy is said to be idiopathic, i.e. an idiopathic peripheral neuropathy. It is believed that approximately 60% of all people with peripheral neuropathy have either a diabetic or idiopathic peripheral neuropathy.

Who is at risk for developing Peripheral Neuropathy?

Although everyone is at risk to develop peripheral neuropathy, people with certain medical conditions or history are more likely to develop peripheral neuropathy than others. A partial list of predisposing factors includes:

  • Diabetes
  • Advanced age
  • Nutritional deficiencies caused by diabetes, advanced age, certain medications (including metformin, L-Dopa, furosemide), excessive alcohol consumption and gastric bypass surgery. 
  • connective tissue diseases including rheumatoid arthritis and SLE
  • history of chemotherapy
  • certain infections including HIV/Aids or Lyme disease
  • exposure to certain toxins
  • hereditary causes

What are some of the complications associated with Peripheral Neuropathy?

Some of the complications associated with peripheral neuropathy are:

  • Instability while walking or standing
  • Unrecognized wounds and infections of the feet and legs
  • Chronic pain in the feet and legs
  • Muscle cramps in the feet and legs
  • Foot deformities

How do doctors diagnose Peripheral Neuropathy?

Peripheral neuropathy is often diagnosed by physicians through a comprehensive examination of the feet and legs. Physicians may also test the nerves of the feet and legs for their ability to conduct certain impulses. Some physicians diagnose peripheral neuropathy by taking a skin biopsy of the feet and/or legs in order to examine the nerves under a microscope.

Can Peripheral Neuropathy be successfully treated?

Yes, some forms of peripheral neuropathy may be successfully treated. For example, people suffering from peripheral neuropathy caused by thiamine deficiency or vitamin B12 deficiency may experience significant relief by increasing intake of these vitamins.

I’m a diabetic. Is there any way to prevent the onset of Peripheral Neuropathy?

There is no way to absolutely insure that someon with diabetes will not get peripheral neuropathy. However, it is strongly suggested to minimize the complications associated with diabetes that you keep your blood sugars well controlled, lead a healthy lifestyle, take appropriate vitamins and see your physicians regularly.

Can you have Peripheral Neuropathy even if you’re not a diabetic?

Yes, there are many causes of peripheral neuropathy other than diabetes.

I have Peripheral Neuropathy.  Are there any precautions I should take?

Yes, there are.  First and foremost see you physician and get checked for diabetes and other diseases that may cause peripheral neuropathy.  If you are a diabetic, it is of the utmost importance that you control your blood sugar, exercise and lead a healthy lifestyle.
Peripheral neuropathy is believed to be the leading cause of nontraumatic amputations in the US.  When your feet are numb they can be easily injured. Therefore it is important that you protect your feet and not put them in harm’s way.
Wear comfortable shoes that are fitted to your feet by a specialist diabetic shoe gear.  Before you put on your shoes shake them to remove any small objects that may have fallen into them such as pebbles, pins, etc. Make certain that your shoes are in good repair and that there are no potentially harmful defects in the interior of the shoe such as a rip in the lining material or a nail extruding into the shoe from the heel.
Inspect or have someone inspect your feet every day making certain to look between your toes and on the bottom of your feet for any signs of infection, ulcerations or wounds. Use of a mirror if necessary. Make certain to look at your socks after you take them off and inspect them to see if there is any drainage on the socks or other signs of a problem.
Never walk barefooted. When you walk barefooted you may step on a piece of glass, a pin or other dangerous object. And since you may not feel this, you may first become aware of this injury when your foot starts to swell or shows other signs of a problem. Never walk in shoes that don’t fit properly and always use proper socks. Don’t be a bathroom surgeon.  Always have a competent foot care professional , preferably a podiatrist, cut your toenails and attend to your feet.
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