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What is Peripheral Neuropathy?

Woman rubbing her foot.

Peripheral neuropathy is a disease of the nerves. It most often starts in your feet and may also eventually affect the arms.Sensory, motor, or both functions may be affected.  It may cause pain or make you unable to sense pain. Sometimes, weakness occurs as well. Lack of pain and weakness makes you more likely to injure yourself without knowing it. But you can learn ways to protect your feet from injury.

When nerves are diseased

Nerves in your feet carry signals to your brain. Your brain reads those signals and interprets them as sensations. When nerves in your feet are diseased, signals may be disrupted or changed. The result may be a lack of feeling (numbness) in your feet or other symptoms (tingling or pain) of peripheral neuropathy.

Woman with bandaged foot talking with her health care provider.

Symptoms mask pain

Symptoms of peripheral neuropathy usually begin in your toes. The symptoms slowly spread up your feet and legs as more nerve is affected. These symptoms may decrease sensation in your feet or mask pain. Without pain, you may not notice a cut or even a bone fracture. Cuts may become infected. Fractures may heal poorly and lead to foot deformity.

Image of foot

Common causes of peripheral neuropathy

Some common causes of peripheral neuropathy include:

  • Diabetes or other endocrine disorders

  • Toxins (such as alcohol)

  • Nutritional deficiencies (such as Vitamin B-12)

  • Kidney disease

  • Injury

  • Repetitive stress (such as carpal tunnel syndrome)

  • Autoimmune disease

  • Cancer and tumors

  • Infection

Diagnosis and treatment

Diagnosis of peripheral neuropathy includes a complete history and physical exam.  Lab tests including blood work and imaging often help determine the cause.  Special nerve tests are often helpful including nerve conduction velocity studies (NCV), and electromyelography (EMG).

Treatment focuses on teating the underlying disorder and treating the symptoms using medications, injections, TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation), acupuncture, massage, and others.

Online Medical Reviewer: Campellone, Joseph, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Hanrahan, John, MD
Last Review Date: 10/19/2015
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