Jump onto any neuropathy related message board or online forum and you’ll see that there is a wide range of causes, types, and symptoms of neuropathy. The symptoms you experience will vary depending on the cause of your neuropathy, the type of peripheral nerve that was damaged (sensory, motor, autonomic) and the extent of damage to the nerve or its protective coating (known as the myelin sheath).
The most common symptoms associated with neuropathy tend to be pain, numbness or tingling – usually in the arms, legs, hands or feet (though they can manifest themselves elsewhere in the body as well). These symptoms are associated with damage to the sensory nerves – the nerves responsible for sending and receiving sensations such as pain, temperature or touch. While these may be the most recognizable symptoms of neuropathy, they certainly aren’t the only ones.
Since peripheral neuropathy can also affect the motor and autonomic nerves, symptoms can extend beyond simply just pain, numbness or tingling. Motor nerves help control muscle movement and therefore damage to this type of nerve can affect your motor functions. Autonomic nerves control functions such as digestion, bladder, heart rate and more – meaning neuropathy can affect these functions as well.
You may be surprised to see that a number of problems you’ve experienced have links to your neuropathy. To better understand the scope of symptoms related to neuropathy, let’s take a look at the broader scale of problems nerve damage can create for those suffering from neuropathy:
Sharp, stabbing pain
When the sensory nerves or their protective coating have been damaged, the processing of sensory inputs from the peripheral nerves is disrupted – often resulting in painful sensations. One of the painful sensations that afflict many suffering from neuropathy is sharp, stabbing pains. These stabbing pains are sometimes described as feeling like jolts of electricity striking the afflicted area. They can also create painful burning sensations in the arms, legs, hands or feet.
The part of the body afflicted can also become more sensitive to touch. In severe cases, even the slightest touch can result in excruciating pain. A common problem for those suffering from sensitive feet is the inability to sleep without the foot being aggravated by the bedding. Some remedies include sleeping without sheets, using a special frame to keep bedding off of the feet or wearing socks to protect the feet from rubbing against the sheets.
Numbness & Tingling
Another symptom related to damage of sensory nerves in the peripheral nervous system is numbness and tingling. Numbness can afflict any area of the body, but as previously mentioned, the most commonly afflicted areas are the hands and feet. This is because the nerves at the extremities are most vulnerable to damage.
While those suffering from sharp pains may welcome numbness, it does present its own set of challenges. Those experiencing numbness are at greater risk of damage from external factors. The numbness may affect their ability to feel pain sensations that would otherwise protect them from serious damage. For example, placing a numb hand or foot in bath water that is too hot could result in serious burns. Sores or blisters on the feet could go unnoticed and become infected.
There are a number of external risks to be aware of. For those experiencing numbness, using extra caution in these kinds of situations can help prevent further damage. Daily inspection of the feet for sores or blisters can help you catch the problem before it’s too late.
Loss of Balance
Perhaps you’ve noticed your sense of balance seems a little off – that it’s not quite what it used to be. If you have – you’re not crazy. Peripheral neuropathy can throw off your sense of balance – especially if your symptoms have manifested themselves in the feet. This is especially true if you are experiencing numbness in the feet.
Numbness in the feet or legs can wreak havoc on your sense of balance. Researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University recently published their findings on the link between peripheral neuropathy and balance. Researchers observed that patients suffering from neuropathy have a greater separation between the body’s center of mass and the center of pressure during movement than those without neuropathic symptoms. The greater the separation, they noted, the more likely one is to lose their balance. Researchers concluded,
“For the first time, we have shown that balance is markedly impaired in patients with diabetic peripheral neuropathy during the gait activities of level ground walking, stair ascent, and stair descent.”
Muscle Weakness & Inability to Control Motor Functions
When the motor nerves are damaged it can weaken the muscles and affect your ability to control muscle movement. This is often manifested in the hands or feet. The weakening of muscles and inability to control muscle movement in the hands or feet can affect even the most basic activities. For example, it may be difficult – or in severe cases, impossible – to stand, walk or even hold something in your hand.
As the neuropathy weakens the muscles, it can lead to muscle degeneration (muscle atrophy) and weaker reflexes. For those experiencing muscle weakness or muscle control problems – speak to your doctor about low impact exercises and dietary supplementations to help maintain muscle strength and prevent muscle shrinking.
Muscle Cramps or Twitching
Another symptom of peripheral neuropathy in motor nerves is cramping in the muscles. The resulting symptoms can range from muscle twitching underneath the skin to debilitating cramps. Since the nerves are often intertwined within the muscles, the constriction then releases the muscles that pull on the nerves – further damaging the nerves and resulting in painful sensations associated with the cramping.
Dizziness or Lightheadedness
Neuropathy can also affect the muscles that help regulate blood pressure – rending them unable to expand or constrict to control the pressure. Sudden movements – such as going from a seated position to a standing position – can trigger a drop in blood pressure. Unable to counteract this drop quickly enough, the body can become lightheaded or dizzy.
If your neuropathy has affected the autonomic nerves you may experience abnormal sweating patterns. For some, this may mean excessive sweating – particularly in the upper body. For others, it may result in an inability to sweat – which can lead to problems with body temperature regulation. Lack of sweating can also result in excessively dry skin on the feet.
Another possible symptom of neuropathy is digestive problems. Nerve damage can disrupt normal digestive functions and slow the process by which the stomach is emptied. Some digestive problems related to neuropathy might include alternating bouts of diarrhea and constipation, heartburn, bloating, and lack of appetite or feeling full after eating only small amounts of food.
Determining the cause of your neuropathy and the understanding type of nerve(s) affected are important for understanding your symptoms. While pain, numbness, and tingling may be the most common symptoms associated with neuropathy – the true breadth of symptoms can expand much further. Understanding your symptoms and recognizing the potential links to your neuropathy can help you get the best possible treatments to alleviate your pain or discomfort.
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