Your peripheral nervous system connects the nerves from your brain and spinal cord, or central nervous system, to the rest of your body. This includes your:

  • arms
  • hands
  • feet
  • legs
  • internal organs
  • mouth
  • face

The job of these nerves is to deliver signals about physical sensations back to your brain.

Peripheral neuropathy is a disorder that occurs when these nerves malfunction because they’re damaged or destroyed. This disrupts the nerves’ normal functioning. They might send signals of pain when there’s nothing causing pain, or they might not send a pain signal even if something is harming you. This can be due to:

  • an injury
  • systemic illness
  • an infection
  • an inherited disorder

The disorder is uncomfortable, but treatments can be very helpful. The most important thing to determine is whether peripheral neuropathy is the result of a serious underlying condition.

What are the types of peripheral neuropathy?

More than 100 different types of peripheral neuropathy exist. Each type has unique symptoms and specific treatment options. Peripheral neuropathies are further classified by the type of nerve damage involved. Mononeuropathy occurs when only one nerve is damaged. Polyneuropathies, which are more common, occur when multiple nerves are damaged.

What are the symptoms of peripheral neuropathy?

The three types of peripheral nerves are:

  • sensory nerves, which connect to your skin
  • motor nerves, which connect to your muscles
  • autonomic nerves, which connect to your internal organs

Peripheral neuropathy can affect one nerve group or all three.

The symptoms of peripheral neuropathy include:

  • tingling in the hands or feet
  • a feeling like you’re wearing a tight glove or sock
  • sharp, stabbing pains
  • numbness in the hands or feet
  • a weak, heavy feeling in the arms and legs, which sometimes may feel like your legs or arms lock in place
  • regularly dropping things from your hands
  • a buzzing or shocking sensation
  • thinning of the skin
  • a drop in blood pressure
  • sexual dysfunction, especially in men
  • constipation
  • digestive difficulty
  • diarrhea
  • excessive sweating

These symptoms can also indicate other conditions. Make sure you tell your doctor about all of your symptoms.

 

Diagnosing peripheral neuropathy

First, your doctor will perform a physical exam and ask about your medical history. If they still can’t tell whether your symptoms are due to peripheral neuropathy, other tests to perform include:

  • Blood tests can measure vitamin and blood sugar levels and determine whether your thyroid is functioning correctly.
  • Your doctor may also order a CT scan or MRI to see if anything is pressing on a nerve, such as a herniated disk or a tumor.
  • Sometimes your doctor will order a nerve biopsy. This is a minor surgery that involves removing a small amount of nerve tissue that they can then examine under a microscope.

Electromyography

Electromyography can show problems with how your body’s nerve signals move to your muscles. For this test, your doctor will place a small needle into your muscle. Your doctor will then ask you to move your muscle gently. Probes in the needle will measure the amount of electricity moving through your muscle. This test may feel like you’re receiving a shot. Sometimes the area becomes sore for a few days afterward.

Nerve conduction study

In a nerve conduction study, your doctor places electrodes on your skin. They then pulse tiny amounts of electricity through your nerves to see if the nerves are transmitting signals properly. This procedure is slightly uncomfortable while it’s happening, but it shouldn’t hurt afterward.

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