Neuropathy is a condition characterized by damage to a nerve or a group of nerves. It causes functional problems in the affected nerves, including a loss of sensation and difficulty with movement. Neuropathy can cause damage anywhere, as the peripheral nerves branch out from the brain and spinal cord to the muscles, skin and organs throughout the body. The nerves send messages to the brain about sensation and pain in each particular area, so if they are not functioning properly, complications can easily occur.
When neuropathy affects one nerve, it is known as mononeuropathy. When several nerves are affected, it is known as polyneuropathy. Neuropathy may develop as a result of a nerve disease, chronic repetitive motion or as a side effect of an illness or medication. Most forms of neuropathy progress gradually and symptoms often occur symmetrically on both sides of the body. Less frequently, neuropathy will have an acute onset with sudden, rapidly-forming symptoms.
Causes of Neuropathy
Depending upon which nerves in the body are affected, neuropathy may be the result of a number of different conditions. Causes of neuropathy may include:
- Systemic disorders, including diabetes, kidney disease and metabolic conditions
- Overuse injuries
- Connective tissue disorders
- Autoimmune conditions
In addition, a number of other factors may be involved in causing neuropathy. In some cases, no cause can be determined for neuropathy, in which case it is considered an idiopathic neuropathy.
Symptoms of Neuropathy
Neuropathy typically begins with shooting pain, numbness, tingling, burning or weakness in the affected area. Over time, it may progress to more serious conditions such as ulcers, chronic pain, loss of sensation and paralysis. Numbness is especially dangerous, as patients sometimes do not detect an injury until the damage is so pervasive that the affected area requires surgical removal.
Diagnosis of Neuropathy
Neuropathy is diagnosed through a physical examination and a review of symptoms and the patient's medical history. One or more nerve-specific tests may be performed, including an electromyogram to assess the electrical activity of certain muscles, nerve conduction testing to measure the speed of pulses within the nerves and a biopsy of nerve tissue. Additional tests may include:
- Blood test
- Imaging tests
- Thyroid tests
These tests are often performed to determine the extent of the damage and to pinpoint the cause of the neuropathy.
Treatment for Neuropathy
Depending on the underlying cause of the neuropathy, treatments may vary. For some patients, little or no treatment will be required and the neuropathy will resolve on its own. For others, managing the underlying cause of the neuropathy, will greatly improve or eliminate the symptoms. Conservative measures are often initially taken to treat many forms of neuropathy. These may include corticosteroid injections to relieve inflammation and pressure on the nerve as well as over-the-counter or prescription medication for pain. In addition, orthopedic devices such as braces or splints may be recommended to stabilize the problem area. Physical therapy is often helpful in strengthening the affected muscles and occupational therapy may be useful in improving sensory motor function skills. If the pressure on a nerve cannot be effectively relieved through less invasive means, surgery may be the best treatment option to alleviate symptoms and prevent permanent nerve damage.