Neuropathy (clinically referred to as “peripheral” neuropathy) occurs when nerves in the peripheral nervous system become damaged. This typically occurs in the extremities of the body, such as the feet, hands, arms and legs. Type 1 and type 2 diabetes are the principle causes of peripheral neuropathy, in which case the condition is referred to as “diabetic neuropathy,” or “diabetic polyneuropathy.”
In contrast, or in complement, to the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), which is responsible for coordinating the actions of all parts of the body, the peripheral nervous system’s function is to transmit information from the central nervous system to all parts of the body outside of the brain and spinal cord. Within the peripheral nervous system are “motor” nerves (which control muscles), “sensory” nerves (responsible for the transmission of sensations such as touch and pain), and “autonomic” nerves (responsible for controlling and regulating “unconscious” functions of the body, such as heartbeat, breathing, digestion and blood pressure).
Diabetes frequently causes peripheral neuropathy because consistently high levels of glucose in the blood over time causes damage to the nerves. Neuropathy in diabetics typically begins (or “ascends”) with damage in the peripheral nerves that are furthest from the brain and spinal cord of the central nervous system, especially those in the feet. From there, the varying degree of pain and numbness associated with neuropathy can work its way up the legs and also start being felt in the hands and then the arms. In severe cases, without treatment and pronounced changes in diet and lifestyle, diabetic neuropathy can result in amputations. It is generally accepted that more than half of diabetes patients will suffer from some form of neuropathy during their lifetimes, and risk of developing neuropathy increases with age for diabetics (and non-diabetics).
Other causes of peripheral neuropathy include but are not limited to alcoholism, certain autoimmune diseases including arthritis, B vitamin, vitamin E and niacin deficiencies (all particularly important to the nervous system), infections, physical injury(trauma), and as a side-effect to certain cancer treatments like chemotherapy. Restless leg syndrome (RLS), which can affect sleep quality, may also signal the presence of peripheral neuropathy.
Symptoms of neuropathy and their severity and consistency are wide-ranging and depend greatly on many factors, such as the initial cause, as well as the weight, age and lifestyle choices of the patient. Common symptoms of peripheral neuropathy, for diabetics and non-diabetics alike, include:
- Numbness and tingling in the extremities, especially the feet and hands
- Loss of muscle strength, balance and coordination in the feet and hands
- Burning sensations in the extremities
- Occasional sharp and shooting pain
- Increased and sometimes exaggerated sensitivity to touch
While itself not considered a fully preventable condition, the surest way to avoid getting peripheral neuropathy is to practice healthful and mindful lifestyle choices, such as eating diverse diets of fresh whole foods, staying active and limiting stress. These healthy actions help to prevent type 2 diabetes, a major cause of peripheral neuropathy. Living healthily and happily also helps to self-manage both type 1 and type 2 diabetes, with the potential to greatly reduce the risk of several including obesity, heart disease, nephropathy, retinopathy and peripheral neuropathy.
Resources and Further Reading
Three good sources for learning more about the causes, symptoms and complications of peripheral neuropathy: https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Fact-Sheets/Peripheral-Neuropathy-Fact-Sheet
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