Life with peripheral neuropathy can be filled with unknowns – especially for those of us whose symptoms or diagnoses are relatively new. Navigating this new life with a painful condition can be (and most often is) overwhelming and frustrating.
From bothersome symptoms like lack of muscle control to debilitating ones such as sharp, stabbing pains in the hands or feet, peripheral neuropathy can wreak havoc on your quality of life. Finding out as much information as possible about the condition, its causes and its treatments can go a long way in getting you onto the path to a better — and more pain-free — life.
Despite affecting nearly 20 million people in the United States, there is still a lot of information that is widely unknown among those suffering from peripheral neuropathy. At its most basic level, peripheral neuropathy is damage to the nerves in the peripheral nervous system – the system that connects your central nervous system to your organs and limbs.
Peripheral nerves are the longest nerves in the body, extending all the way to the hands and feet. When damaged, the most common symptoms are a pain, numbness or tingling in the hands and feet. As we’ll see, however, these aren’t the only symptoms. Let’s take a look at 10 things you need to know about neuropathy:
Complications from diabetes can lead to neuropathy
Diabetes is the number one cause of neuropathy worldwide. In fact, an estimated 70% of diabetes patients develop the symptoms of neuropathy. If you suffer from diabetes-induced neuropathy – or suffer from diabetes but haven’t yet developed neuropathy – managing your blood sugar levels is the most effective form of treatment for preventing, stopping and even reversing the effects of diabetic neuropathy.
Other Potential Causes of Neuropathy
While diabetes is the leading cause of neuropathy, it isn’t the only one. Other potential causes may include medications, chemotherapy, surgery, traumatic injury, repeated pressure on the nerves, tumors, alcoholism, vitamin B12 deficiency, exposure to toxins, infections and more. In some cases, doctors may not be able to determine a cause. When the cause is unknown, it is called idiopathic neuropathy.
Certain Medications May Damage Your Nerves
As mentioned above, certain medications can cause neuropathy. For those suffering from diabetes, the drug metformin can be detrimental to your nerves. It has been linked to an increased risk of vitamin B12 deficiency, which can result in neuropathy. Here are some other common medications that may damage your nerves:
If you notice any of the symptoms of neuropathy while taking any of the medications of above – notify your doctor immediately. Catching it early may help prevent permanent damage.
Pain, Tingling & Numbness Aren’t the Only Symptoms
When the peripheral nerves are damaged – the most common symptoms include pain, tingling or numbness in the hands and feet. While these are perhaps the most recognizable symptoms associated with neuropathy – they are far from the only symptoms. Other symptoms will vary – depending upon the type of nerve or nerves that have been damaged.
There are three types of peripheral nerves – sensory, motor and autonomic. Each type has a different function – and damage to each type will result in different symptoms.
Sensory Nerves: Damage to the sensory nerves often results in the pain, tingling or numbness most often associated with neuropathy.
Motor Nerves: Damage to the motor nerves will affect muscle function and control – potentially resulting in difficulty walking, picking things up or moving the arms.
Autonomic Nerves: Damage to the autonomic nerves may affect more of your involuntary functions such as heart rate, breathing, sweating, blood pressure and more.
This graph shows some of the symptoms often linked to damage to the autonomic nerves:
Numbness can lead to more serious problems
If numbness is one of the symptoms you’ve experienced as a result of your neuropathy – you’ll want to take extra caution to prevent more serious damage. When neuropathy leaves feet feeling numb, it can be particularly dangerous as problems with a foot may go unnoticed. For example, a small pebble stuck in a shoe for a few hours could cause serious damage to the skin and foot. If the damage goes unnoticed for a prolonged period of time – there is also an increased risk of infection.
If neuropathy has left your foot (or feet) numb – inspect your feet daily for sores, blisters or cuts that could lead to infection. Also, be sure to wear comfortable socks and loose-fitting (but not too loose) shoes to help prevent damage.
Prevention is key
While in some cases the cause of your neuropathy may have been something out of your control (i.e. nerve damage from a traumatic injury or surgery) – in other cases the nerve damage can be prevented. Or, if you already have neuropathy, you may be able to prevent the damage from spreading.
The most common cause of neuropathy – diabetes – is also one of the most preventable. Managing your blood sugar levels can help prevent, stop and even reverse diabetic neuropathy. In addition to diabetes, there are other potential causes that are preventable. These include vitamin B12 deficiency, alcoholism and repeated pressure on the nerves (i.e. from sitting, using crutches, etc). Eating healthy, exercising and taking the right nutritional supplements can help boost the health of your nerves and prevent further damage.
Prescription Medications Can Help Ease Pain – But They Aren’t a Cure
Prescription medications can be beneficial in helping to take the edge off of the pain of peripheral neuropathy – but the relief is only temporary. Rather than address the underlying cause(s) of your neuropathy – prescription medications typically just mask the pain for a short amount of time. Once the medication wears off, more is needed to continue being effective. Be aware of the risks associated with taking certain medications and consult your doctor about the best options for your situation.
Supplements Can Benefit Neuropathy Patients
Many individuals suffering from nerve pain have turned to vitamin or nutritional supplements to help boost nerve health and ease nerve-related pain, numbness or tingling. Supplements are generally a safer alternative to prescription medications and rather than mask the symptoms – they help fix some of the underlying problems that cause nerve pain, providing more long-term relief.
The most popular and effective supplements for neuropathy include vitamin B12, alpha lipoic acid, magnesium, acetyl-l-carnitine and more.
Alternative Approaches Can Help You Manage Pain
Sometimes the words “alternative medicine” can invoke strange images in our minds and scare us away. However, alternative approaches to managing nerve pain have proven effective for many patients. These approaches can help sufferers learn to more effectively manage their pain and also provide lasting relief from their symptoms. Popular alternative approaches for neuropathy include acupuncture, massage, yoga, tai chi, low-impact exercise, biofeedback, TENs therapy and more.
Your Diet Can Either Help or Hurt Your Symptoms
The food you eat has the potential to either help or hurt your nerves – so knowing what to avoid and what to eat more of is very important. Among the types of foods, you should avoid are those containing artificial sweeteners, processed sugars, gluten, casein (a protein commonly found in dairy) and refined grains. Each of these poses various threats to the health of your nerves and can exacerbate your nerve pain.
When it comes to foods that can help with neuropathy – plant-based diets have been shown to be highly effective in stopping and evening reversing diabetic neuropathy. A recent study found that “a low-fat, whole-food vegan diet, coupled with daily walking exercise, leads to rapid remission of neuropathic pain in the majority of type 2 diabetics expressing this complication.”
Additionally, you should make sure your diet is rich in the following nerve-boosting vitamins and nutrients: vitamin B12, B6 (in limited amounts), B2, B1, D, magnesium, and zinc.
Whether you’re newly diagnosed or you’ve suffered from neuropathy for years – knowing as much as possible about the condition can help you make informed decisions about the best treatment options for you. Knowing what foods to eat and what to avoid – as well as what alternative approaches to using as complementary treatments to the more traditional treatments – can help you reduce the pain and other symptoms.
What were some of your most pressing questions about neuropathy when you were first diagnosed? How did you find the answers? Share your experiences with us on our Facebook Page!