What Is Neuropathy? - Definition, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Neuropathy is a term that describes a broad range of nerve disorders. Read this lesson to learn about the different types of neuropathy, what causes it to happen, the resulting symptoms, and how neuropathy is treated.

What is Neuropathy

Neuropathy the medical term for a condition in which there are problems with nerves in the body - either they have been damaged or are affected by a disease. Usually, neuropathy affects the peripheral nervous system rather than the central nervous system (brain and spine). As of December 2014, the National Institutes of Health estimated that peripheral neuropathy affects about 20 million people in the U.S.

The peripheral nervous system is shown in blue, and the central nervous system is shown in red.
nervous system

Types of Neuropathy

In the peripheral nervous system, there are three primary types of nerves:

  • Sensory nerves control the senses and the body's interpretation of different sensations.
  • Motor nerves control muscle movement and power.
  • Autonomic nerves control bodily systems like the gastrointestinal and urinary systems.

If only a single nerve is affected, it is called mononeuropathy. If several nerves are affected, it is called polyneuropathy.

Causes of Neuropathy

As much as 30% of neuropathy cases have no known causes (called idiopathic neuropathy). The most common cause of peripheral neuropathy is diabetes; prolonged high blood sugar eventually damages the walls of blood vessels, and the small vessels in the hands and feet show signs of damage first. Other possible causes of neuropathy include:

  • Vitamin deficiencies (especially vitamin B12)
  • Medications
  • Toxins
  • Cancer
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Chronic kidney or liver disease
  • Injuries
  • Infections
  • Guillain-Burre syndrome
  • Connective tissue diseases
  • Inflammatory conditions
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Pressure on a nerve
  • Bone marrow disorders.

Neuropathy Symptoms

Symptoms may vary based on which type of nerves are damaged. With sensory neuropathy, the symptoms can include tingling, numbness, hypersensitivity, pain or the inability to feel pain. It may also lead to lack of sensation of temperature, decreased coordination, shooting pains, changes in skin, hair or nails, and leg ulcers or infections.

Motor neuropathy can cause muscle weakness or wasting, twitching, cramps or paralysis. Autonomic neuropathy may cause fainting, dizziness, racing heart, reduced or excessive sweating, and feeling too hot. Other symptoms of autonomic neuropathy include loss of bladder control, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, the inability to maintain an erection in men, nausea, vomiting, trouble swallowing, and abnormal pupil size. As you can see, the possible symptoms of neuropathy are diverse.

Diagnosing and Treating Neuropathy

If neuropathy is suspected, the doctor will evaluate the person's medical history and perform a physical examination. The physician can also assess nerve functioning by performing nerve conduction studies. Electromyography is a procedure that tests the electrical activity of muscles. Nerve biopsies can also assess the density of nerves in a particular area.

When treating neuropathy, there are three main goals:

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