What Causes Neuropathy: A Detailed Guide

Neuropathy has various symptoms, including numbness, tingling, muscle weakness, and pain resulting from damage or malfunction to one or more nerves. Although the hands and feet are common sites of onset for neuropathies, other areas of the body are also not immune to the condition.

Neuropathy, sometimes known as peripheral neuropathy, is an indication of dysfunction in the extremities of the neurological system. The peripheral nervous system refers to the system of nerves outside the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord). The central nervous system includes both your brain and spinal cord.

Visualize the interplay of the two systems: The brain and spinal cord is where things go down in your body. It's the nerve center from which trains radiate out in all directions. The stations in your peripheral nervous system are like train lines that lead to your brain. Trains (information signals) can get to and from the hub thanks to the network of nerves (the rails) (your brain and spinal cord).

Neuropathy results when neurons, the cells that transmit nerve impulses, are disrupted. This messes with the brain's and neurons' ability to communicate with one another. Neuropathy can affect a single nerve or nerve type (mononeuropathy), many nerves in a localized location (multifocal neuropathy), or numerous peripheral nerves throughout the body (polyneuropathy).

What does neuropathy feel like?

Those who suffer from neuropathy often report numbness, tingling ("pins and needles"), and weakening in the affected extremity. Besides dull aches, there are also sharp pains like bolts of lightning, as well as searing, throbbing, or stabbing pains.

Who gets neuropathy? How common is it?

The neurological condition known as neuropathy is quite widespread. An estimated 25-30% of the US population may get neuropathy. People of all ages can get this disease, but the risk increases. Some form of neuropathy affects around 8% of persons over 65.

Diabetes, metabolic syndrome (high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and diabetes), and heavy alcohol consumption are among the most prominent risk factors for neuropathy in the United States, alongside advancing age. Repetitive motions and other occupational risk factors increase the likelihood of developing mononeuropathies due to trauma or nerve compression.

Among other cited statistics, neuropathy exists in:

  • 60 to 70% of diabetics
  • 30-40% of patients undergoing chemotherapy for cancer
  • 30% of those infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)

Causes of Neuropathy

There is no single condition that exclusively causes neuropathy. Neuropathy can be caused by a wide variety of potentially harmful conditions and events, such as:

1. Diabetes

In the United States, diabetic neuropathy is prevalent. Neuropathy affects between 60–70% of patients with diabetes. Small fiber neuropathy, characterized by intense burning sensations in the hands and feet, is the most prevalent complication of diabetes.

2. Trauma

Accidents like motor vehicle accidents can cause broken bones and other injuries that might lead to neuropathy. Other causes include compression of the nerves from either repetitive stress or a reduction in the available space around the nerves.

3. Autoimmune disorders and infections

Many autoimmune diseases and infections can lead to neuropathy, including Guillain-Barré syndrome, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjogren's syndrome, and chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy. Neuropathy can also be caused by infections such as chickenpox, shingles, HIV, herpes, syphilis, Lyme disease, leprosy, West Nile virus, Epstein-Barr virus, and hepatitis C.

Additionally, myeloma, lymphoma, monoclonal gammopathy, kidney and liver diseases, hypothyroidism, and tumors (both malignant and benign) that push on nerves or enter their space can all lead to neuropathy.

4. Poisons and Medications

Neuropathy can be caused by various medications, including antibiotics, anti-seizure drugs, and HIV treatment drugs. Radiation and chemotherapy for cancer are two examples of treatments that might harm peripheral nerves. Heavy metals (such as lead and mercury) and industrial chemicals (particularly solvents) can also affect nerve function if exposed to them over long periods.

5. Vascular disorders

Diseases of the blood vessels: inflammation, blood clots, and other forms of impaired blood flow to the extremities can cause neuropathy. Oxygen deprivation, brought on by blood flow drops, can damage or kill nerve cells. Vasculitis, smoking, and diabetes are all risk factors for vascular issues.

6. Alcoholism and Insufficient vitamin levels

Inadequate Vitamin Levels and Alcoholism: Vitamin E, vitamin B1, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and niacin all play critical roles in maintaining normal nerve function. Thiamine and other critical nutrients needed for nerve function are often depleted from the body in people with chronic alcoholism due to their poor dietary habits. The peripheral nerves may also be directly harmed by alcohol.

7. Genetic diseases

The most prevalent form of hereditary neuropathy is Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT) illness. CMT weakens the muscles in the hands, feet, and lower legs. Inherited illnesses such as familial amyloidosis, Fabry disease, and metachromatic leukodystrophy can also result in neuropathy.

8. With no apparent origin

There may be no apparent reason for some occurrences of neuropathy.

The Final Verdict

Your healthcare provider is the best person to advise you on what to expect from a diagnosis of PN and which treatment options are likely to be successful. Taking your medicine as prescribed, maintaining a balanced diet, and cutting back on alcohol usage can help you avoid worsening your neuropathy. There may not be a way to reverse the damage done by peripheral neuropathy, but you can take steps to limit its progression to maintain your health and independence.

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