Standing up to Peripheral Neuropathy
By Ann Constantino,
Published in the Humboldt Independent on August 3, 2021
As many as 20 million Americans suffer from some form of peripheral neuropathy. This condition, which can give rise to numbness, tingling, and/or mild to severe pain in the nerve tissue it affects has a wide variety of causes, or can even be idiopathic (having no known cause). Treatment depends on the cause, but there are remedies almost anyone can try that will lessen the severity of symptoms.
The Three Nervous Systems
When damage occurs to the nerve tissue, these pathways do not function properly…
The nervous system is divided into the central nervous system (CNS), the peripheral nervous system (PNS) and the autonomic nervous system. The brain and spinal cord make up the CNS and the nerves carrying information from those structures to the rest of the body make up the PNS. The autonomic nervous system governs the unconscious but vital functions of the heart, digestion, bladder, blood pressure and perspiration.
Nerve signals travel from the periphery to either the spinal cord or all the way to the brain where processing results in motor signals being returned to the peripheral body in the form of a motor, or movement, response. Nerve signals of the autonomic system are constantly at work in the background.
Nerves traveling from the periphery to the CNS are called sensory nerves and deliver information about what the senses sense. The motor response travels back to the tissue after this processing and leads to an action or a thought appropriate to the situation. For example, if you place your hand on a hot stove burner, your sense of touch and your pain receptors will result in pulling the hand away as fast as possible. The nerves have carried the information to the brain or spinal cord and a response has been dictated.
When damage occurs to nerve tissue, these pathways do not function properly and the resulting symptoms fall under the rather wide umbrella known as peripheral neuropathy.
What are the symptoms?
Often associated with diabetes, over half of all diabetics will end up with some kind of peripheral neuropathy. Some cases develop slowly, others more rapidly and some can lead to deformation of feet and hands or even amputation of severely affected limbs.
Peripheral neuropathy can also be caused by injury, infection, medication, chemotherapy, exposure to toxins, overindulgence in alcohol, or inherited causes. There are over 100 types of peripheral neuropathy, and treatment will likely depend on what that cause is determined to be.
See your provider if you begin to develop any kind of numbness, tingling or pain consistently affecting your hands and feet, or any other unexplained changes in sensation or motor control. Treatments are generally the most successful when started early.
Symptoms of sensory neuropathy could be numbness and tingling at the start and may worsen to stabbing pain that gradually moves up the affected limb. If motor nerves are affected, symptoms could be weakness, lack of coordination and falling, or even paralysis in the area innervated by the damaged nerves.
If autonomic nerves are damaged, the effects could be sudden drops in blood pressure, over-perspiring or not being able to perspire at all, bowel and bladder changes or malfunction, or heat intolerance.
Is there medical treatment?
Stress management is a good pain-reduction strategy for all causes of neuropathy.
Treatments typically depend on what the cause is determined to be. When the cause is nutritional deficiency or excessive alcohol consumption, the remedies are simple. More careful monitoring of blood sugar levels can help curb the progress of neuropathy in diabetics.
A change in medication or avoidance of toxins could alleviate symptoms with those associated causes.
Nerve pain medications may be prescribed and in some cases surgery may be performed to repair damage caused by injury or compression. In severe cases, mobility aids may be required such as canes, walkers or wheel chairs.
A healthy diet rich in B vitamins, which support the nerve tissue is recommended. Curb alcohol use. Quitting smoking can improve circulation. At least three hours a week of moderate exercise can help. Stress management is a good pain-reduction strategy for all causes of neuropathy. Acupuncture is another highly effective way to reduce pain.
What can I do on my own?
Exercises that stretch and strengthen the affected areas can bring a lot of relief, but must be done consistently.
Numerous studies have shown that yoga can reduce symptoms of neuropathy. In one study of diabetes patients, nerve conduction improved and blood glucose levels stabilized in just 40 days of practice. In sufferers of carpal tunnel syndrome, an ailment known for its painful neuropathy symptoms, yoga improved grip strength and reduced pain in the affected wrist and hand.
Exercises that stretch and strengthen the affected areas can bring a lot of relief, but must be done consistently. Improving your balance can make falls less likely as well as improve nerve function in the foot and lower leg. Hand and foot exercises that maintain and improve function and dexterity will improve nerve function. Nerves can repair themselves if causes of damage can be removed, but it is a very slow process.
Southern Humboldt Community Healthcare District’s sponsored Restorative Movement classes often emphasize balance as well as mobilization and strengthening of the hands and feet. For information on the classes or to access a one-hour video focused on improving balance and foot mobility, send an email to email@example.com.
Catch your symptoms early, identify the causes and remedies with your provider, and stand up to peripheral neuropathy.
Ann Constantino, submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health’s Outreach department.