Haims: Understanding neuropathy
Neuropathy in its simplest definition is nerve disease or damage. It is a relatively common condition and is not isolated to any particular part of the body. Injury, infection, exposure to toxins and alcohol/drugs can all contribute to neuropathy.
- Sensory nerves — nerves controlling sensation. Often effects of this type of neuropathy include impaired sense of touch, reflex and balance.
- Motor nerves — nerves controlling movement. These nerves contribute to issues of muscle twitching, weakness and atrophy.
- Autonomic nerves — nerves influencing internal organs. Bladder control, blood pressure, digestion and sweating abnormalities are associated with this type of disorder.
Types of nervous systems
The central nervous system is contained within the brain and spinal cord. Neuropathy occurring within the central nervous system is often associated with spinal cord injury, scarring of tissue surrounding nerves, alcohol abuse and Parkinson’s.
The peripheral nervous system is the largest nervous system of the human body. The nerves that run through our arms, hands, fingers, legs, feet and toes are peripheral nerves — they transmit sensory information back to the central nervous system system of the brain and spinal cord.
While neuropathy can commonly occur in your central nervous system, most frequently, neuropathy affects the peripheral system.
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According to the National Institutes of Health, “An estimated 20 million people in the United States have some form of peripheral neuropathy, a condition that develops as a result of damage to the peripheral nervous system — the vast communications network that transmits information between the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) and every other part of the body.
“Symptoms can range from numbness or tingling, to pricking sensations (paresthesia) or muscle weakness. Areas of the body may become abnormally sensitive leading to an exaggeratedly intense or distorted experience of touch (allodynia). In such cases, pain may occur in response to a stimulus that does not normally provoke pain. Severe symptoms may include burning pain (especially at night), muscle wasting, paralysis or organ or gland dysfunction. Damage to nerves that supply internal organs may impair digestion, sweating, sexual function and urination. In the most extreme cases, breathing may become difficult, or organ failure may occur.”
Diagnosing peripheral neuropathy
In the United States, the most common cause of peripheral neuropathy is diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association, 60% to 70% of people with diabetes will develop neuropathy within their lifetime.
Peripheral neuropathy is often difficult to diagnose. Because it can affect many different parts of the body, it is sometime hard to determine the specific cause of symptoms. Often, medical professionals will start by running blood tests, doing physical exams, reviewing medical history and examining family neurological diseases.
Further testing may include nerve and skin biopsies, nerve function tests and CT/MRI imaging. An electromyogram study may also be suggested. Electromyogram studies are used to evaluate and measure the electrical activity of muscles at rest and during contraction. Nerve conduction studies measure the ability of sensory and motor nerves and how well they send electrical signals.
Although people with diabetes often experience neuropathy issues, one of the best steps to taking an active role in minimizing your exposure to peripheral neuropathy is keeping your blood sugar levels under control. This requires constant monitoring by anyone that may have neuropathy concerns. However, for those with diagnosed diabetes, the A1C test should be taken at least twice a year.
Maintaining good foot care plays a very important part in minimizing risks of neuropathy. Properly trimming toenails, wearing dry and clean socks, wiggling your toes, moving your ankles up and down multiple times a day and wearing shoes that are comfortable and fit well may assist in mitigating many foot-problem complications.
Great information about peripheral neuropathy can be found at the Foundation for Peripheral Neuropathy, the American Diabetes Association and the Brain Resources and Information Network division of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
If you have experienced loss of sensitivity in your hands and/or feet, or have noticed balance concerns, a visit to your doctor may be a good idea. Getting ahead of decline and being proactive is always good practice.
Judson Haims is the owner of Visiting Angels Home Care in Eagle County. He is an advocate for our elderly and available to answer questions. His contact information is VisitingAngels.com/comtns and 970-328-5526.