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The peripheral nervous system (PNS) receives and responds to messages from the brain and spinal cord – the central nervous system – and sends information back. Your peripheral nervous system controls your ability to move, your sense of touch, and automatic bodily functions, such as breathing. Peripheral neuropathy describes damage to the messaging to and from the peripheral nervous system.
Peripheral neuropathy occurs when there is a problem with your peripheral nervous system, the network of nerves that transmits information from your central nervous system (your brain and spinal cord) to the rest of your body.
The symptoms of peripheral neuropathy can vary greatly depending on what part of the body is affected. Symptoms can range from tingling or numbness in a certain body part to more serious effects such as burning pain or paralysis.
Peripheral neuropathy has many different causes. Some people inherit the disorder from their parents, and others develop it because of an injury or another disorder. Diabetes contributes to diabetic neuropathy. The American Diabetes Association says up to half of people with diabetes will develop peripheral neuropathy.
There are more than 100 types of peripheral neuropathy, each with its own set of symptoms and prognosis. To help doctors classify them, they often are broken down into the following categories:
Motor neuropathy – This is damage to the nerves that control muscles and movement in the body, such as moving your hands and arms or talking.
Motor neuropathy symptoms may include:
- Muscle weakness
- Muscle twitching
- Loss of muscle and bone
- Changes in skin, hair or nails
Sensory neuropathy – Sensory nerves control what you feel, such as pain or a light touch. Sensory neuropathy affects these groups of nerves.
Sensory neuropathy symptoms may include:
- Loss of sensation or feeling in body parts
- Loss of balance or other functions as a side effect of the loss of feeling in the legs, arms or other body parts
- Emotional disturbances
- Sleep disruptions
- Loss of pain or sensation that can put you at risk, such as not feeling an impending heart attack or limb pain
Autonomic nerve neuropathy – Autonomic nerves control biological functions that you are not conscious of, such as breathing and heartbeat. Damage to these nerves can be serious.
Autonomic neuropathy symptoms may include:
- Inability to sweat properly, leading to heat intolerance
- Loss of bladder control, leading to infection or incontinence
- Dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting because of a loss of control over blood pressure
- Diarrhea, constipation or incontinence related to nerve damage in the intestines or digestive tract
- Difficulty eating or swallowing
- Life-threatening symptoms, such as difficulty breathing or irregular heartbeat
Combination neuropathies – You may have a combination of two or three of these other types of neuropathies, such as a predominantly motor neuropathy or a sensory-motor neuropathy.
Diagnosing peripheral neuropathy
If your doctor suspects nerve damage, he or she will take an extensive patient history and conduct neurological tests to determine the location and extent of your nerve damage.
Treatment for peripheral neuropathy
Treatment for your particular peripheral neuropathy is dependent on the cause of the nerve damage. The focus for most treatment is to slow or stop damage to the peripheral nervous system and manage symptoms caused by this damage. You and your LVHN doctor will work together to determine which types of treatments or therapies (rehabilitation) will help you most.