Neuropathy is the medical term for a disease of your nervous system or damage to your nerves. Since your nerves transmit signals between your brain, muscles, blood vessels, skin and internal organs, any damage to your nerves can cause blockage of the messages or mixed messages being received which in turn can cause pain or discomfort (often extreme).
There are three types of neuropathy
- Peripheral neuropathy or damage to the peripheral nervous system. This is the most common type of peripheral neuropathy and often affects the feet and legs. Diabetes or other autoimmune disorders are primary causes.
- Autonomic neuropathy, which is damage to the nerves that regulate the part of your nervous system that you can’t control —your heart rate, blood pressure, perspiration and digestion.
- Mononeuropathy is damage to a single peripheral nerve, often caused by injury or prolonged pressure on a nerve that runs close to the surface of the body near a bony prominence.
Neuropathy often results in numbness and abnormal sensations called neuropathic pain or neuralgia, which is very different from the pain you might experience if you cut yourself, or stubbed your toe. Neuropathic pain is usually felt as an “electric shock, “pins and needles” or burning sensation. The reason the pain feels different is that “ordinary” pain only stimulates pain nerves, while neuropathic pain is the result of the firing of both pain and non-pain (touch, warm, cool) nerves in the same area. The spinal cord and the brain cannot interpret these mixed signals.
If you have ever had your foot “fall asleep”, you have experienced a minor neuropathy. Your foot falls asleep when the blood supply to a nerve in your foot is cut off probably by a compressed artery. The lack of blood makes the nerve give off abnormal signals – which you feel as pins and needles. When you move your foot and restore the normal blood supply, the nerve resumes operating properly and the tingling sensation goes away.
How is neuropathy treated?
Neuropathy is often the result of a chronic condition, so, controlling a chronic condition plays a major role in managing the disease. For example, if the neuropathy is caused by diabetes, properly managing blood sugars can help ease pain. Similarly, addressing other possible contributors such as vitamin deficiency, treating an autoimmune disorder, relieving ongoing nerve pressure or removing toxic substances or medications can provide some relief.
Medications including painkillers, anti seizure medications, anesthetic patches, and stronger opioid analgesics (i.e. codeine) can all provide some relief although their use has to be closely monitored as they have side effects on the body.
Other types of treatments including drug free treatments have also been shown to provide relief from neuropathic pain. Electrical nerve stimulation, a form of mild electric shock helps in some situations. In other cases, acupuncture, hypnosis and mental relaxation techniques have all proven helpful.
There is no one treatment that works for all neuropathies. Treatments are as individual as the people who are suffering from the disease, and what works for one person will not necessarily work for another.