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More than 20 million Americans suffer from some form of neuropathy, according to the National Institutes of Health. It can affect people of all ages, however, adults over the age of 65 are at increased risk.
Octavia Kincaid, MD, NorthShore neurologist, offers answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about this condition and how it is treated.
What is peripheral neuropathy?Peripheral neuropathy occurs when damage or dysfunction of one or more nerves results in numbness, tingling, muscle weakness and pain. While common forms of peripheral neuropathy start in the toes and travel up into the legs, other types of neuropathy can involve other parts of the body, occurring suddenly or progressing slowly.
What are the symptoms?The symptoms caused by peripheral neuropathy depend on which type of nerves are involved. There are three types of nerves (sensory, motor and autonomic) that may be damaged leading to feelings or sensations of numbness, tingling, pins and needles and weakness in the area of the body affected. Burning, throbbing or stabbing pain are other symptoms.
What causes it?Neuropathy can be caused by thousands of different problems, but in the United States, the most common underlying conditions causing nerve dysfunction are diabetes, nutritional imbalances and inflammatory disorders. Nerves exposed to excessive alcohol, chemotherapy for cancer treatment, or even some vitamins, taken in excess, can also become dysfunctional or damaged.
How quickly does it develop?The initial symptoms and progression of peripheral neuropathy depends on the specific cause of the problem. Some neuropathies develop slowly (months to years), while others may develop more rapidly and continue to worsen.
How is it diagnosed?If you suspect that you are suffering from neuropathy, schedule a physical exam with your doctor. Your doctor may order blood work or radiographic studies, or refer you to a neurologist.
How is it treated?Identifying and treating underlying conditions to control and manage symptoms and to prevent further nerve damage is the first step. Medicines, physical therapy, occupational therapy and surgery are available treatment options.
Can neuropathy be prevented?You can reduce your risk of neuropathy by adopting healthy habits: exercising, quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy weight and limiting alcohol intake.See your healthcare provider as soon as you notice symptoms. If left untreated, neuropathy can lead to permanent nerve damage.