How To Recognize Symptoms of Peripheral Neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy comes in many forms and may result from many conditions. Recognizing the symptoms early can mean the difference between long-term disability and maintaining your quality of life. This article will highlight some of the warning signs and what to expect when you see your doctor.

Types of Peripheral Nerves

There are three types of nerves leading away from your spine to control the rest of your body.

  1. Sensory nerves help you feel hot, cold, pain, texture, touch, sound, smell, taste, and pressure. It’s how we experience the world. It is also our early warning system. It alerts us to heat before we get burned, gives us pain so we know we’re injured, and lets us know when our feet touch the ground so we don’t fall over. Sensory nerves send information to the brain, which interprets the data and calls for action.
  2. Motor nerves carry out necessary actions based on the information our brains receive. They command your muscles to contract so you can sit, stand, run, bend, and twist.
  3. Autonomic Nerves handle all the bodily functions we don’t want to think about. If you had to command your heart to beat, you’d die the first time you fell asleep. The autonomic nerves control your lungs, stomach, bowels, liver, and other internal organs.

Peripheral neuropathy results from damage to one or more of these nerves. The signal going to and from the brain is interrupted or corrupted, causing symptoms that are out of the ordinary to occur.

Symptoms of Peripheral Nerve Damage

Damaged sensory nerves are responsible for pain, tingling, and burning sensations in our extremities. If the nerve is severed or impinged, it may lead to numbness or hypersensitivity. As sensory nerves help our brain know our feet are on the ground, interruption to the signal can lead to slow reaction times when we start to fall or loss of balance.

Motor nerve damage limits our ability to move and perform daily tasks. Climbing the stairs becomes a dangerous task when you can’t lift your foot high enough and you trip on the steps.

Autonomic nerve damage can lead to a loss of feeling in your bowels and bladder, causing incontinence or an intestinal blockage. It could make it hard to regulate your body temperature and disrupt necessary organ function.

Look for the following signs to see if your nerves could be damaged:

  • Numbness or tingling
  • Excessive sweat
  • Racing heart
  • Tripping, tipping, or falling
  • Extreme sensitivity to touch
  • Burning or sharp pain
  • Difficulty performing your normal activities
  • Excessive urination (a sign of diabetes)
  • Muscle weakness
  • Paralysis

Visiting With Your Doctor

The first step is figuring out the primary cause of your symptoms. If neuropathy is caused by diabetes, then the doctor should give you an assessment that evaluates and measures your lifestyle and daily habits to rule out the underlying causes of why you may be in the office in the first place. If, however, the damage stems from your spine (pain is not always present) then the proper neurological examination needs to be performed. If it is determined that the spinal region is correlated, there are nonsurgical ways to help alleviate the symptoms in the hands and/or feet.

Your doctor should get a detailed history and perform an examination to determine the cause and extent of your symptoms. Questions should include:

  • What have you tried in the past that hasn’t worked?
  • How are your symptoms affecting your life?
  • What medications and/or supplements are you taking?
  • Any recent or related past trauma?
  • Have you been exposed to chemicals, chemotherapy, or radiation?
  • Do you smoke, drink, or use recreational drugs?
  • Any exposure to toxins or heavy metals?
  • Any recent or chronic illness?

Tests Your Doctor May Run

In addition to your medical history, your doctor may order a series of tests to narrow down the cause. A blood test can check for diabetes, vitamin deficiencies or toxicity, or elevated white blood cell counts that may indicate an active infection.

Additionally, various sensory and muscle strength tests should be performed to indicate the severity of peripheral neuropathy.

If the damage is from the spine, you will probably need imaging such as an x-ray, CT Scan, or MRI. Locating the exact location where the nerve is damaged will allow your doctor to decide what treatment is necessary. The imaging helps rule out any guesswork to where the potential problem may be stemming from.

Some patients may have already been to a neurologist. The neurologist is likely to run two tests.

  • Nerve conduction Study (NCS) – electrodes are placed on the skin, and a mild electrical current runs through the electrodes so the doctor can measure how your nerves respond.
  • Electromyography (EMG) – small needles are inserted to measure the electrical current in the muscles.

Occasionally, these tests may come back as normal but the patient still experiences the symptoms. This indicates that further testing is necessary.

At the first sign of neuropathy, it is important to address the underlying cause. The earlier you address the cause of your symptoms, the better your results. After you discover the source of your troubles, you and your doctor can create a treatment plan that meets your needs. If caught early, many types of nerve damage can be reversed, improving your comfort and preserving your quality of life.

The information, including but not limited to, texts, graphics, images, and other material contained in this article are for informational purposes only. None of the material mentioned is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this article.

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