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Family Health

The Lowdown on Living with Neuropathy

May 7 to 13 is National Neuropathy Awareness Week. The week highlights the national effort to educate the public on neuropathy's causes, treatments, and prevention strategies. If you or someone you care for is living with neuropathy, the week presents an excellent opportunity to learn more about this condition and help others.

What Is Neuropathy?

Approximately 20 million Americans are living with peripheral neuropathy. While the term "neuropathy" simply means "nerve damage," peripheral neuropathy is the impairment of the nerves in the body's outer extremities -- such as the hands and feet. While the explanation for an individual's neuropathy is sometimes unknown, a wide range of factors can cause it. Here are some causes of this chronic neurological disease.

  • Trauma from injury and repetitive stress is the most common cause, and medical treatments, like certain types of chemotherapy and surgeries, can damage nerves.
  • Nearly 70 percent of people with diabetes live with some level of neuropathy.
  • Inflammation from autoimmune diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis can destroy nerve fibers.
  • The majority of people on dialysis for kidney disease develop neuropathy because excess toxic chemicals accumulate and damage nerves.
  • Infections, both bacterial and viral, are a major cause of neuropathy.
  • Heavy drinking can cause irreversible nerve damage.

Diagnosing Neuropathy

Symptoms of neuropathy depend on the type of nerve damaged. Associated with muscle weakness, motor nerve damage symptoms include decreased reflexes, twitching, and cramping. Sensory nerve damage leads to loss of sensation and is a leading cause of falls among older adults. It also causes difficult-to-treat neuropathic pain. Common symptoms of neuropathy include:

  • Tingling, burning, or numb sensations
  • Hypersensitive to touch
  • Stabbing or shooting pains
  • Muscle cramps and loss of muscle mass
  • Dizziness and balance issues
  • Weakness

To diagnose neuropathy, health care professionals begin with a physical and neurological exam, and gather your medical history. They may order any number of tests and screenings to expand their search or confirm suspicions. Tests might include skin and nerve biopsies and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. Nerve conduction velocity tests -- used to determine damage to large nerve fibers -- and those that measure muscles' electrical activity help pinpoint neuropathy's physical effects.

Treating Neuropathy

The good news for those living with neuropathy is that it is sometimes reversible. Peripheral nerves do regenerate. Simply by addressing contributing causes such as underlying infections, exposure to toxins, or vitamin and hormonal deficiencies, neuropathy symptoms frequently resolve themselves.

In most cases, however, neuropathy is not curable, and the focus for treatment is managing symptoms. Assistive devices, pain management, and physical therapy make a tremendous difference for those living with neuropathy. Technologies -- from specialized footwear to electrical nerve stimulation devices -- offer hope for the future.

Preventing Neuropathy

Whether you have to quit smoking, control blood sugar levels, avoid alcohol, or implement aggressive self-care, you can likely manage symptoms and stall neuropathy's progression. Some people even make changes to their routine to greatly reduce their risk of ever acquiring it. Eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and avoiding bad habits are major steps in that direction.

Help make National Neuropathy Awareness Week a success by becoming a part of the effort. Learn what you can and share your experiences. If you're living with neuropathy or caring for someone who is, know that your voice matters.

Posted in Family Health

Since retiring from a career as a medical, geriatric, and public social worker, Charles Hooper has published hundreds of articles and blog posts on a variety of topics, including health and medicine, politics and government, and advocacy. Charles graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master's degree in social work. He received an Outstanding Scholar award and graduated with honors from the University of North Carolina at Asheville, where he majored in sociology and political science.

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*This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute health care advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor or physician before making health care decisions.