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Peripheral Neuropathy

Introduction

Peripheral neuropathy refers to the conditions that occur when nerves that carry messages to the brain and spinal cord from the rest of the body become damaged or diseased.

Anatomy

The peripheral nerves make up an intricate network that connects the brain and spinal cord to the muscles, skin, and internal organs.  Peripheral nerves come out of the spinal cord and are arranged along lines in the body called dermatomes.  Typically, damage to a nerve will affect one or more dermatome, which can be tracked to specific areas of the body.

Causes

Peripheral neuropathy may be either inherited or acquired.  Some of the causes of acquired peripheral neuropathy may be an injury to a nerve, tumors, alcoholism, hormonal imbalances or an autoimmune disorder or infection.  Some causes of inherited peripheral neuropathy come from mistakes with genetic coding or birth disorders.

Symptoms

Every peripheral nerve has a highly specialized function in a specific part of the body, and therefore, a wide array of symptoms can occur when nerves are damaged.  Some people may experience temporary numbness, tingling, pricking sensations, sensitivity to touch, or muscle weakness.  Others may suffer more extreme symptoms including burning pain, muscle wasting, paralysis, or organ or gland dysfunction.  People may become unable to digest food easily, maintain safe levels of blood pressure, sweat normally, or experience normal sexual function.  In the most extreme cases, breathing may become difficult or organ failure may occur.

Diagnosis

Peripheral neuropathy can be hard for a doctor to diagnose because it is a symptom of many possible causes.  Your doctor will need to do a full medical history and neurological exam in order to determine where the nerve damage is.  Your doctor will most likely want to order blood tests and diagnostic tests as well to look for what may be potentially causing symptoms.

Treatment

Referral to a physical therapist for peripheral neuropathy can be helpful in alleviating the pain that it causes.  Your therapist will provide an exercise program that can help with strengthening and flexibility, as well as helping to improve range of motion and stability.  They can also help to recommend braces or splints that can enhance your balance and posture.

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