In the human body, nerves located beyond the brain and spinal cord are called peripheral nerves. However, they interact with the brain and spinal cord to send information back and forth between them and the skin, muscles and internal organs.
Peripheral neuropathy happens when disease or injury causes this system of peripheral nerves to produce pain, tingling, numbness, poor function and other problems.
Remember that nerves are like tiny electrical wires in the body that carry around information. Think of a power cord in your home or a telephone wire. If that cord becomes frayed or damaged, it can’t send power properly to what needs electricity to run smoothly. A frayed telephone line may cause static on your line or cut off communication altogether.
Similarly, in the human body, damaged nerves cannot carry information back and forth properly between the brain and, say, the hands or feet. This may cause hands or feet to feel tingling sensations, numbness or both. Sometimes the result is outright pain.
Common Conditions of Neuropathy
Peripheral nerve damage, then, produces a variety of painful conditions in the body. One of the most common is carpal tunnel syndrome. This is when you are using your hands in a repeated way to perform a particular task for hours on end, such as typing at a keyboard. The nerves become damaged and the hands then start exhibiting pain, tingling or numbness. They may also become cramped and misshapen. This is a classic case of peripheral neuropathy.
Mononeuropathy is when a single nerve gets damaged. The most common cause in this case is an accident that damages a nerve. Carpal tunnel syndrome falls under this category.
The other major category is polyneuropathy. As its name implies, this is when a number of nerves incur damage. Polyneuropathy is far more common than mononeuropathy. It can be caused by everything from alcoholism and diabetes to poor nutrition and kidney disease. In fact, diabetic neuropathy is the most common form of polyneuropathy.
These conditions tend to open up a whole new set of additional problems. For example, diabetic-induced nerve damage may cause people to lose the ability to feel sources of heat. That may cause them to touch hot objects for too long and burn the skin. If the nerves that serve the colon are damaged, the result can be diarrhea or other digestive problems. If the bladder is affected, incontinence or trouble controlling urine may result.
Other factors can cause peripheral neuropathy as well. One is exposure to a toxic chemical, another is a side effect caused by harsh medical treatments, such as chemotherapy. Some prescription drugs can cause nerve damage. Even bad eating habits may produce peripheral neuropathy.
Peripheral neuropathy is often treated with prescription medications. These can range from tricyclic antidepressants to common pain medications, such as those derived from opioids. These might be codeine, oxycodone or hydrocodone.
Another class of drugs used to treat neuropathy is antiepileptics, although these have been found to be only effective with diabetic neuropathy. Antiepileptics have produced positive results in 30% to 40% of diabetic patients.
A therapy called TENS is short for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. This involves placing electrode pads on the surface of the skin and over affected areas. Currents of electricity are delivered through the pads to stimulate damaged nerves. The jury is very much out on the true effectiveness of TENS. There just aren’t enough good studies with large numbers of cases over long periods of time to gain accurate data.
If the neuropathy is caused by eating gluten, then a gluten-free diet has shown in at least one trial to provide significant relief. This works only for people known to be gluten sensitive.
There’s great interest in herbal remedies and procedures, such as acupuncture, to treat peripheral neuropathy. Many positive claims have been made for such agents as nutmeg and St. John’s wort. However, none of these treatments have been verified by mainstream scientific studies using double-blind protocols and peer review.