What is a peripheral neuropathy?

The term peripheral neuropathy describes a problem with the functioning of the nerves outside of the spinal cord. The symptoms of a neuropathy may include numbness, weakness, burning pain (especially at night), and loss of reflexes. The pain may be severe and disabling.

What causes a peripheral neuropathy?

There are many possible causes of peripheral neuropathy, including:

  1. Some of the most common causes include repetitive activities such as typing or working on an assembly line. In this case, the neuropathy may be isolated to the upper extremities, such as with carpal tunnel syndrome.
  1. Pressure on a nerve can cause a peripheral neuropathy. For example, pressure on a nerve that comes out from the groin to the skin in front of the upper thigh (the lateral femoral cutaneous nerve) can cause burning and tingling in this location. This particular problem is called meralgia paresthetica and can be caused by wearing a tight belt or other restrictive clothing. Additionally, it can result from being overweight or pregnant.
  1. Many illnesses can result in peripheral neuropathy. Some examples include diabetes, syphilis, AIDS, and kidney failure.
  1. Other causes include nutritional deficiencies, such as B-12 and folate deficiency, medications and chemical exposures. Medications known to cause peripheral neuropathy, include several AIDS drugs (DDC and DDI), antibiotics (metronidazole, an antibiotic used for Crohn's disease, isoniazid used for TB), gold compounds (used for rheumatoid arthritis), some chemotherapy drugs (such as vincristine and others) and many others. Chemicals known to cause peripheral neuropathy include alcohol, lead, arsenic, mercury and organophosphate pesticides.
  1. Some peripheral neuropathies are associated with diseases which are inherited (hereditary). Others are related to infectious processes (such as Guillian-Barre syndrome).

Is there any treatment for peripheral neuropathy?

The treatment for peripheral neuropathy depends on its cause. Many peripheral neuropathies can be treated by addressing the underlying cause (such as vitamin deficiency). Others can be prevented from occurring. For example, controlling diabetes may prevent diabetic neuropathy. Still others can be corrected by surgery (for example carpal tunnel syndrome). Neuropathies that are associated with immune diseases can improve with treatment directed at the abnormal features of the immune system.

If a specific treatment isn't available, the pain of the neuropathy can usually be controlled. The simplest treatment is acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or aspirin. Tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline (ELAVIL) and anti-seizure medications, such as carbamazepine (TEGRETOL) have been used to relieve the pain of neuropathy. Capsaicin, the chemical responsible for chili peppers being hot, is used as a cream to help relieve the pain of a peripheral neuropathy. Finally, a nerve block may be effective at relieving the pain.

If you believe you have a peripheral neuropathy, you should contact your health care practitioner since many causes of peripheral neuropathy can be successfully treated.

Peripheral Neuropathy At A Glance
  • There are many causes of peripheral neuropathy, including many drugs, diabetes, kidney failure, and vitamin deficiency.
  • Many causes of peripheral neuropathy can be successfully treated or prevented.
  • The treatment for a peripheral neuropathy depends on its cause.

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