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Neuropathy, peripheral - Introduction

NHS Choices Medical Reference

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Peripheral neuropathy is a term for damage to the peripheral nervous system.

The peripheral nervous system

The nervous system consists of:

  • the central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord
  • the peripheral nervous system - which includes all parts of the nervous system that lie outside the central nervous system, including the motor nerves, which the brain uses to control the muscles

The peripheral nervous system is made up of three main types of nerves, each with its own specific function:

  • automatic nerves help regulate the automatic functions of the body, such as blood pressure, bladder function and sweat levels
  • motor nerves control the muscles of the body
  • sensory nerves pass sensations - such as cold, heat or pain - from the affected area of the body to the brain

If the peripheral nerves become damaged it can cause the following symptoms:

  • numbness and tingling in the feet and hands
  • a burning, stabbing or shooting pain
  • loss of co-ordination in the affected body parts
  • muscle weakness

Generally, the sooner that peripheral neuropathy is diagnosed the lower the chance of developing serious complications. That means it is important to see a GP if you experience symptoms of peripheral neuropathy.

Read more about the symptoms of peripheral neuropathy.

What causes peripheral neuropathy?

In England, diabetes (both type 1 and type 2) is the most common cause of peripheral neuropathy.

Over time, the high blood sugar levels associated with diabetes can damage the nerves. This type of nerve damage is known as diabetic polyneuropathy.

It is estimated that around one in five people with diabetes has diabetic polyneuropathy.

Peripheral neuropathy can have a wide range of other causes. For example, it can be caused by a viral infection, such as HIV, or as a side effect of certain medications.

People who are at increased risk of periperhal neuropathy are recommended to have regular check-ups so that their nerve function can be assessed.

Read about the causes of peripheral neuropathy for more information.

Who is affected

Peripheral neuropathy is a relatively common condition that affects around one in 50 people in England. Peripheral neuropathy usually affects older people: 8% of people who are 55 or over are affected by it.

Outlook

The outlook for peripheral neuropathy can vary widely depending on the underlying cause and what sort of peripheral nerves have been damaged.

For example, if the sensory nerves of the hands or feet are affected, the outlook is generally good. However, it is important that the underlying cause, often diabetes, is treated.

This is because over time, diabetic polyneuropathy can cause a diabetic foot ulcer (an open sore that develops in the foot). If the ulcer becomes infected, there is a risk that the foot tissue will begin to die and it may be necessary to amputate the foot.

The outlook is not so good in cases where neuropathy affects the automatic functions of the heart and circulation system (cardiovascular automatic neuropathy). This is because the condition can increase the risk of sudden death as a result of the heart suddenly stopping (cardiac arrest).

Read more about the complications of peripheral neuropathy.

As well as addressing the underlying cause of peripheral neuropathy, treatment can also include medication to treat the symptoms of nerve pain. Read more about how peripheral neuropathy is treated.

Medical Review: June 25, 2012
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