Peripheral Neuropathy (Neuropathy) occurs when one or more nerves in the extremities (arms or legs) are damaged in some way. This can cause a variety of symptoms depending on the type of nerve and location of damage.
What does peripheral neuropathy feel like?
Basically there are three types of nerves running out through the body:
Sensory – these nerves let us “feel” things, sensations, pain, touch, location
Motor – these nerves let us “do” things like move, coordinate movement
Autonomic – these nerves do the things we don’t have to think about: maintain body temp, run the contraction of vessels and open sweat pores to cool the body, etc.
Any one or several of these nerve types can be affected. Each one gives a specific type of symptoms as follows:
Sensory – usually numbness, tingling, pain or odd feelings like the feeling of wearing socks or gloves when none are being worn, burning or stabbing sensations
Motor – weakness of the extremity or the loss of movement or movement control
Autonomic – intolerance to heat or cold, too much or too little sweat, blood pressure irregularities
What causes peripheral neuropathy?
Damage to a nerve or group of nerves running from the body into the arms or legs will result in neuropathy – literally the disease or dysfunction of nerves. There are many ways this can occur.
One of the most common things we see clinically is damage to the nerves by uncontrolled high blood sugar (glucose) levels in diabetic patients. Neuropathy (usually in the feet or hands) is often something diabetics notice first that causes them to investigate their blood sugars.
Another common cause of peripheral neuropathy is toxic exposure to chemicals. We live in an increasingly chemical-dependent world and many of us are exposed accidently to levels of toxins that our body cannot handle, or slowly exposed to toxins that build up in the system. Sadly, one of the more common scenarios for this is chemotherapy, which saves lives but commonly leaves a side effect of numbness or pain in the hands or feet of many cancer survivors. Alcohol abuse also falls under the heading of toxic exposure.
Autoimmune diseases like Sjogren’s, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and Guillain-Barre syndrome can also result in peripheral neuropathy. In these cases a malfunctioning immune system attacks and damages the body’s own tissues, including nerves. Infectious diseases like Lyme, shingles, Epstein Barr, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C and HIV can also damage nerve tissue as the disease process destroys healthy tissues in the body. Vitamin and nutrient deficiencies, whether the result of a disease process or from poor diet, prevent the body from properly maintaining healthy nerves. Tumors and other growths or bulging discs in the spine may press on and irritate or damage a nerve fiber. Finally, trauma obviously damages/severs nerves.
How is Peripheral Neuropathy typically treated?
In Western medicine, the treatment for neuropathy is commonly some sort of medication to alleviate the perceived discomfort, to calm the nerves or to reduce inflammation in and around the nerves. Some of the most commonly used meds fall under three categories, each with its own benefit and risk factors: anti-seizure medications and anti-epileptics….common ones include carbamazepine and more recently gabapentin. These drugs act by calming overactive nerves and were originally developed and used for seizure treatment. These drugs often have side effects such as fatigue, foggy-headedness, a “sedated” state, dizziness, edema or tremors.
Anti-depressants like venlafaxine are prescribed for some neuropathy patients. Because of their action on nerve receptors and nerve-stimulating chemicals in the body, they sometimes can block the irregular signals from the extremities into the brain. Many antidepressants cause unwanted effects such as weight gain from increased appetite, sexual dysfunctions, dry mouth or insomnia.
Opioid pain killers (oxycodone or tramadol) are sometimes used when the pain and discomfort become severe. Given the recent opiod crisis in the U.S., these medications are being used less and less.
Chinese Medicine and Peripheral Neuropathy:
Chinese medicine looks at neuropathy from a standpoint of needing to understand the underlying cause of the issue in order to:
1) heal the original issue in the body’s function,
2) benefit and heal the affected nerves and,
3) eliminate the insulting agents that originally caused the damage.
A complete diagnostic of the patient’s entire body and function of all organs is performed to understand how the nerves became damaged, the severity of the damage and what functions of the body need to be addressed in order to heal the injured tissues. Once causation is determined, an Acupuncture protocol is developed to address not only the symptoms of neuropathy but also to address nerve healing. Herbal medicines may be formulated and prescribed to enhance acupuncture outcomes. Your acupuncturist will often recommend dietary or nutritional advice to assist nerve healing.
Peripheral Neuropathy can be a life-altering condition, caused by many factors and affects each patient uniquely. It can affect one or more types/groups of nerves in each case. A comprehensive and holistic approach to relaxing and healing nerve tissue and promoting general health is an excellent way to deal with the immediate symptoms and effects of neuropathy, and also to restore as much health to the tissues as possible and prevent further damage.