Anyone who has spent a day walking through a theme park, taking a strenuous hike or wearing shoes that are too tight knows what foot pain feels like. However, for the estimated 20 million people in the U.S. who suffer from a condition called peripheral neuropathy, sudden and intense weakness, numbness and pain in the feet or hands can take hold without obvious cause.
The peripheral nervous system is a vast communications network that sends information from your brain and spinal cord to the rest of your body. Peripheral neuropathy occurs when peripheral nerves that are damaged or diseased interrupt normal communications. Like static on a telephone line, peripheral neuropathy distorts or disrupts messages and, in doing so, can impair muscle movement, prevent normal sensation and create pain.
What are the causes?
The most common cause of peripheral neuropathy in the U.S. is diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association, up to 70 percent of people with diabetes will develop neuropathy in their lifetime. Other causes of peripheral neuropathy include:
- Traumatic injury
- Repetitive stress movements
- Certain medications, including some chemotherapy drugs
- Advanced age
- Exposure to toxins
- Neurological disorders
Symptoms are highly variable
The symptoms of peripheral neuropathy often begin with numbness, prickling or tingling in the toes and fingers. The pain can be either constant or periodic, but usually the pain is felt equally on both sides of the body—in both hands or in both feet. Some types of peripheral neuropathy develop suddenly, while others progress more slowly over many years. Other symptoms include:
- The sensation of wearing an invisible sock or glove
- Burning sensation or freezing pain
- Sharp, jabbing, shooting, or electric-like pain
- Extreme sensitivity to touch
- Difficulty sleeping because of feet and leg pain
- Loss of balance and coordination
- Muscle weakness
- Muscle cramping/twitching
- Difficulty walking or moving the arms
- Unusual sweating
- Abnormalities in blood pressure or pulse
Early diagnosis is important
Diagnosing peripheral neuropathy can be challenging—and early diagnosis is vital, as the peripheral nerves have limited capacity to regenerate. After taking a thorough medical history, your pain management specialist may also choose to give you a neurological exam to looks for signs of muscle weakness, numbness and/or impaired reflexes. Blood tests can be performed to detect diabetes, vitamin deficiencies, liver or kidney dysfunction, and signs of abnormal immune system activity. Additional tests that can help determine the nature and extent of the neuropathy include:
- Nerve conduction velocity (NCV)
Measures the degree of damage in large nerve fibers, and the speed and strength of nerve impulse transmissions.
- Electromyography (EMG)
Detects abnormal electrical activity in motor neuropathy, and can help differentiate between muscle and nerve disorders.
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
Illustrates muscle quality and size, detects fatty replacement of muscle tissue and rules out tumors, herniated discs or other abnormalities that can cause neuropathy.
Take preventative steps
There are several things you can do to prevent or minimize peripheral neuropathy:
- Keep your blood sugar under control
Someone with diabetes whose blood sugar is kept under tight control will usually have better sensation in their fingers and toes than someone with poorly controlled diabetes.
- Maintain healthy habits
Eating a nutritious diet, exercising, and abstaining from excessive alcohol consumption can help prevent nerve damage.
- Inspect your feet regularly
Decreased sensation may develop gradually, so you might not notice an injury or infection without regular visual inspection.
You don’t have to live with the pain
Effective treatment of peripheral neuropathy relies heavily on its cause. For example, peripheral neuropathy that is the result of vitamin deficiency can be treated or even reversed with vitamin therapy and improved diet. If alcohol abuse is the root cause, peripheral neuropathy can be improved by avoiding alcohol. In most cases, however, the goal of treatment is to slow the progression of the disease, decrease any pain being experienced and improve quality of life. Treatment options include:
- Peripheral Nerve Stimulation (PNS)
PNS involves implanting a small electrical device next to a peripheral nerve to interrupt pain signals.
- Spinal Cord Stimulation
Spinal cord stimulation uses low voltage stimulation to the spine to block the feeling of pain.
- Spinal Pump
A spinal pump can be used to direct pain medication through the spinal fluid, allowing for a much more potent effect on the spinal cord—and the cause of the neuropathy.
If you are experiencing the pain associated with peripheral neuropathy, it’s important to seek treatment early to prevent further damage. At Pain Management and Injury Relief, we can diagnose, treat and rehabilitate the underlying causes of your pain. If you’d like to learn more about the options we offer, call PMIR at (877) 724-6349 to make an appointment today.