Nerve damage or peripheral neuropathy describes any sort of dysfunction in the nerves outside of the central nervous system. While peripheral neuropathy occurs most often in the hands, feet, arms, and legs, any peripheral nerves in the nervous system (anything that is not your brain or spinal cord) can be affected.
While some might assume that simple trauma is a major cause of nerve damage, the most common causes are diabetes and heavy drinking. But nerve damage can be caused by a wide variety of things, including heavy metals, poison, trauma, viral and bacterial infections, genetic disorders, circulatory problems, kidney disease, and more.
When the cause cannot be identified, it is called idiopathic neuropathy. While pain is an obvious part of nerve damage, not all forms of nerve damage are identified through pain. The absence of pain, or any feeling in general, is another important clue. The signs of nerve damage in general are not always very straightforward.
It can be difficult to pinpoint the cause of a person’s neuropathy if it is not immediately obvious, such as recent exposure to toxic chemicals or a history of blood pressure problems. Certain rarer causes like Lyme disease and tetanus can be deadly if not treated, while other kinds of neuropathy progress very slowly, and treatment is difficult. If you are experiencing any of the following, seek medical attention:
Persistent Tingling or Numbness
If you have ever sat around too long or slept in an awkward position, you will know exactly what pins and needles feel like. Pins and needles demonstrate one of most common causes of peripheral neuropathy: circulatory issues. But in most cases, the feeling is fleeting and passes as soon as blood flow is restored, and the nerves regain full function.
But when your pins and needles just won’t go away and you are left feeling a persistent pricking, tingling, or numbness in some portion of your body, you may be experiencing a more severe kind of diabetic neuropathy (nerve damage), or some sort of permanent circulatory issue (as is common in people with diabetes).
Our body has its fair share of sensory nerves which act to warn us of danger and give us appropriate feedback to various stimuli. Getting cut, burnt, or hit is supposed to hurt, in part to protect us from further damage.
But when you are finding unexplained cuts, bruises, and burns on your body with no recollection of when or how they occurred, then your sensory nerves may be literally sleeping on the job. While not feeling pain might sound convenient, losing a critical warning system like pain can have terrible consequences. Dress your wounds and seek medical attention immediately.
Bladder and Bowel Problems
There’s dysentery, and then there’s urinary and fecal incontinence due to neuropathy. When you cannot wait for the bathroom to be vacant, then there is a possibility that the nerves that help you control your bladder and bowels are damaged.
Damage to the nerves in the intestines, and compression caused by inflammation or a tumor can also cause symptoms of neuropathic incontinence. These symptoms are quite severe, and should be addressed immediately, especially if they are combined with weakness and numbness.
Weakness, Slowness, and Paralysis
Your motor neurons are responsible for relaying commands from the brain to the various muscles in your body, some of which move autonomic nerves and some of which move on command. Any damage to this type of nerves can cause a wide variety of problems, ranging from mild loss of strength and coordination to severe complications.
This is especially true for when your respiratory and cardiac muscles are affected. If you have sudden trouble with moving your arm or leg, making a fist, are feeling much weaker in one side, or can’t move a body part at all, some nerve or several nerves may have been damaged or are being compressed.
Sharp Unilateral Pain
Any overwhelming and sharp one-sided pain may be related to your nerves, especially in the arms and legs. Pain running down one leg from the buttocks to the heels is particularly common, and caused by a compressed or damaged sciatic nerve, the longest nerve in the body. Similar compression or damage to other nerves running along the spine can cause pain and weakness in one arm, as well. Other causes should not be discounted – the sharp pain may be a result of:
- Muscle weakness and spasms
- Other causes
It is important to consult a physician and get an accurate diagnosis.
Headaches can be caused by a mixture of things, ranging from dehydration and eye strain to tension caused by poor posture. But sharp, shock-like pains, especially around the back of the neck, behind the ears, and along the back of the skull, may be a sign of occipital neuropathy, also called occipital neuralgia (nerve pain). This is nerve damage to a series of sensory nerves running along the neck and head. Anything from general inflammation to whiplash can cause occipital neuralgia.
Pain at the Slightest Touch
Hypoalgesia is a decreased sensitivity to pain. Analgesia is a lack of pain sensation. Hyperalgesia is an increased sensitivity to pain. But when you are feeling a pain reaction in response to sensations that shouldn’t elicit any pain (like a casual touch or brush against a rough surface), you may be experiencing allodynia. Rather than feeling more or less pain, allodynia drastically reduces the pain threshold for your sensory nerves.
Temporary allodynia is sometimes triggered by a bad sunburn, wherein massive portions of skin are effectively wounded. But when you experience a pain reaction with no real clear cause, the answer may be nerve damage. Pain modulation is an important function for our sensory nerves, and sometimes, neuropathy can lead to mixed signals and false positives.
Stumbling, Falling, and Balance Issues
Balance and coordination issues are often associated with inner ear problems, but sometimes they can be exacerbated or caused by neuropathy in the legs, effectively cutting off your motor neurons from your brain and causing one of your legs to give out partially or totally.
The problem might be subtle at first, but if you are stumbling often and cannot quite get your leg to listen to you, there might be something wrong with your motor nerves. In cases of numbness, you might not necessarily be able to catch yourself after tripping on something because your nerves did not register the object in the way.
What Causes Nerve Damage?
While it is cliched, nerves are much like an electrical cable running through the body, branching off to deliver and relay impulses around the nervous system and facilitate communication between the spinal cord, the brain, and the rest of the body. Damage to the cable can affect its function, from cutting off energy to causing surges to become more frequent and dangerous.
Compression or damage due to sheer trauma can inhibit a nerve’s function, either by cutting off blood supply or destroying part of the nerve. Different substances, toxins, and diseases can affect nerves and neurons on a cellular or molecular level, inhibiting their function. Identifying the cause of a patient’s neuropathy is important for treating it, but sometimes, the cause is unknown.
In cases of idiopathic neuropathy, treatment may consist of pain management depending on the severity of the pain, and observation. Patients are encouraged to stay active, eat healthy, and refrain from anything that might exacerbate pain or medical conditions, such as heavy drinking, pro-inflammatory eating habits, and high blood sugar. In most cases, finding the cause for a person’s nerve damage can help them regain partial or even full function, or at least diminish or eliminate pain and discomfort.