What Is Peripheral Neuropathy?
Peripheral neuropathy is damage to the peripheral nervous system which transmits information from the brain and spinal cord to every other part of the body. These are the nerves that sense pain, touch, hot, and cold. They also affect movement and muscle strength.
The nerves in the feet and lower legs are most often affected. This type of nerve damage can lead to serious foot problems. The damage usually gets worse slowly, over months or years. Symptoms may get worse during pregnancy. Peripheral neuropathy can be caused by many different conditions, but one of the most common is diabetes.
Symptoms of Peripheral Neuropathy
- Tingling or burning in your toes, feet, legs, fingers, hands, or arms
- A “pins and needles” feeling
- Pain or cramping
- Numbness or loss of sensation (severe or long term numbness can become permanent)
- Insensitivity to heat and cold
- Extreme sensitivity to even the lightest touch
- Muscle weakness in your hands or feet
- Loss of coordination or balance that makes it harder to walk
- Burning sensation (especially in the evening)
The nerves to your feet are the longest in your body, and they’re often the first to be affected. (Nerve pain, numbness, and muscle weakness can also appear in your hips, thighs, and buttocks—called proximal neuropathy—making it hard to walk.)
Types of Nerve Pain
- Diabetic Peripheral Neuropathy
- Postherpetic Neuralgia and Shingles
- Nerve Pain vs. Muscle Pain
Diabetic Peripheral Neuropathy
Diabetes is a lifelong condition in which sugar (glucose) remains in the blood rather than entering the body’s cells to be used for energy. This results in high blood sugar, which, over time, can damage many body systems.
Nearly 21 million Americans have diabetes, and at least six out of 10 of them have some kind of nerve damage—called diabetic neuropathy—according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA). Over time, high blood sugar levels can damage nerves throughout your body. The higher your blood sugar levels, the more likely you are to have nerve damage. So controlling your blood sugar throughout your life is very important.
Nerve pain or numbness can happen in anywhere in your body, but the feet and legs are the most common area. Nearly one in three people over age 40 with diabetes has lost some feeling in his or her feet, says the ADA. A little numbness is not a minor problem. Amputation—having a toe, foot, or lower leg surgically removed—is 10 times more likely in people with diabetes.
For people with diabetes, nerve pain can be a serious problem. Nerve damage in the feet can result in a loss of foot sensation, increasing your risk of foot problems and possibly leading to infections. Injuries and sores on the feet may go unrecognized due to lack of sensation. Therefore, you should practice proper skin and foot care.
Postherpetic Neuralgia & Shingles
Sometimes, particularly in older people, symptoms of shingles persist long after the rash has healed. In these cases facial paralysis, headache and persistent pain can be the outcome. Possibly because the nerve cells conveying pain sensations are hardest hit, or are sensitized by the virus attack, pain is the principal persistent complication of shingles.
This pain, called postherpetic neuralgia or PHN, is the kind of pain that leads to insomnia, weight loss, depression and that total preoccupation with unrelenting anguish that characterizes the chronic pain sufferer.
- Although it can be extraordinarily painful, postherpetic neuralgia is not life–threatening
- It is important to realize that individuals with postherpetic neuralgia no longer have shingles because their infection is over. Instead, they are suffering from damage to the nervous system. Scientists believe that the virus attack has led to scarring or other lesions affecting the cells in sensory ganglia and associated nerves. Even in such severe cases, however, the paralysis, headaches, and pain generally subside, although it may take time.
Fibromyalgia syndrome affects the muscles and soft tissue. Fibromyalgia symptoms include chronic pain in the muscles, fatigue, sleep problems and painful tender points or trigger points at certain parts of the body. Fibromyalgia pain and other symptoms can be relieved through medications, lifestyle changes, stress management and other treatments.
Nerve Pain vs. Muscle Pain
The nerve pain that occurs with diabetes is different from other types of pain that you may feel. For example, it is different from the pain you get from a sprained ankle or muscle ache.
There are lots of medicines available for pain, but many products that you are used to taking for headaches, muscle aches, or joint pain have not been clinically proven to calm the stabbing, tingling, burning pain that may be associated with nerve damage.