Polyneuropathy, or Peripheral Neuropathy: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

An estimated 20 million people in the U.S. suffer from polyneuropathy, a disease that can have many different causes, risk factors, and effects in the lives of those who are affected by it. But, do we know enough about it? And what can we do to prevent it?

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What is Polyneuropathy

Polyneuropathy is a condition that affects the nerves of the peripheral nervous system, the network that connects the central nervous system to the rest of the body. It occurs when nerve cells are damaged or killed, which changes and interrupts the communication between the brain, spinal cord and the rest of the body; though it mainly affects the hands and feet and causes a lot of pain.

Unlike in mononeuropathy, where only one nerve is damaged, in polyneuropathy several nerves are damaged.

3 Types of Polyneuropathy

The types of polyneuropathy are determined by the type of nerves that have been damaged; and there are 3 types of nerves in the peripheral nervous system:

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  1. Sensory Nerves: these carry messages to the brain about what you’re sensing through touch, such as temperature or texture.
  2. Motor Nerves: they carry messages from the brain to the muscles, commanding them to move.
  3. Autonomic Nerves: these control body functions that are outside of our conscious control, like heartbeat, breathing, digestive processes, or blood pressure.

All of these nerves are very important and each serves specific functions in the body. This is why damage to any of them can cause uncomfortable, painful and life altering side effects.

This condition can affect one type of nerve cells, or a combination of them, making its effects varied depending on the situation.

Based on the above, the three types of polyneuropathy are:

Sensory Neuropathy

Motor Neuropathy

Autonomic Neuropathy

Symptoms

Sensory Nerve damage

  • Tingling
  • Numbness
  • Painful burning sensation
  • Inability to identify temperature or textures
  • Sensing textures that are not there (feeling of wet skin when it is dry, sensation of oiliness, or of wearing gloves and socks when you are not).
  • Difficulty grasping objects
  • Poor coordination

Motor nerve damage

  • Weakness and instability
  • Muscle twitching
  • Impaired movement
  • Spasms and cramps
  • Lowered muscle tone and muscle control
  • Clumsiness
  • Frequent falls or tripping easily

Autonomic nerve damage

  • Decreased sweating
  • Abnormal heart rate and blood pressure
  • Urination problems, diarrhea and digestive issues
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Unintentional/unexplained weight loss
  • Fainting or dizziness
  • Nausea

How is the Diagnosis Obtained?

The diagnosis of polyneuropathy is usually made by a neurologist, who looks deeply into the patient’s medical history, ask key questions about symptoms, and makes a careful physical examination to determine any possible loss of sensitivity and change in sensation.

Blood tests are usually performed after the diagnosis in order to discard any underlying conditions, such as diabetes, thyroid issues, autoimmune disorders, malnutrition, and other factors. And, in order to check for spine injuries or conditions, doctors might request an MRI or a CT scan, since the neuropathy might be caused by a slipped disk or inflammation.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes

  • Diabetes: Diabetes is a systemic disease that can affect the entire body, and neuropathy concurs in about 70% of diabetes cases.
  • Trauma: this includes injury, compression due to repetitive movements, or surgery.
  • Infections: some viruses (like HIV and herpes) and bacteria can cause nerve damage, which might be repaired through intense therapy and treatment, but might also be permanent, particularly if the sufferer is over 50 years of age, since healing and cell regeneration is slower after this age.
  • Autoimmune disorders: some of these disorders (such as Guillain-Barré Syndrome, Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, and Rheumatoid Arthritis) cause nerve damage.
  • Systemic Conditions: diabetes, kidney disorders, some forms of cancer, or hormonal imbalance can cause neuropathy.
  • Medication/Toxins: Chemotherapy and strong medication used for certain conditions can damage nerves, just like toxic substances such as heavy metals, chemicals, or solvents.
  • Decreased blood flow: disorders or situations that cause decreased blood flow to the extremities can deprive nerve cells of oxygen and cause their death or at least some damage. These conditions might be temporary or permanent.
  • Vitamin deficiency: nerve cell health depends on certain vitamins and nutrients, without which they cannot be healthy and function properly.
  • Alcohol consumption: excessive alcohol consumption can cause nutrient deficiency that damages nerves and causes peripheral neuropathy.
  • Genetics: Neuropathy can also be hereditary; its most common form being CMT disease, which affects mainly the feet, but can eventually affect the hands. There is no cure for it, and it can cause feet deformity and walking difficulties.

Though a vast amount of neuropathy cases are caused by diabetes, between 30 and 40% of cases have an undetermined cause. In this case, they are referred to as idiopathic. This is an issue, since identifying the cause is the most important step towards treatment, and may make the prognosis a lot brighter.  

Risk Factors

  • Age: people who are over 50 years old are at higher risk of being affected by neuropathy, though younger people can also suffer from it.
  • Sex: Men are more commonly affected by it that women.
  • Race: There is a higher rate of caucasian people diagnosed with neuropathy.
  • Profession: jobs that require repetitive motions are more at risk of developing compression-related neuropathy.

Polyneuropathy: Treatments and Recommendations

Treatment for polyneuropathy highly depends on the cause, which is why it’s so important to figure it out. If it isn’t, and the condition is qualified as idiopathic, treatment options reduce to symptom management, rather than possible improvements or nerve recovery.

Initially, if an underlying condition that caused the nerve damage is found, the treatment can focus on that. For example, managing diabetes with diet and medication can improve nerve function. Infections can be treated and, depending on the extent of the damage and the age of the person, nerves might recover.

Hormonal and nutrition related neuropathy can be cured through treatment, via medication, vitamin supplements, and better nutrition. But most cases are permanent and can only be improved through pain management and therapy.

Since it usually has a significant effect in quality of life, there are several treatment options that improve debilitating symptoms like pain, numbness and lack of coordination. Some of these treatments are:

  • Pain medication to manage the burning sensation that nerve damage can cause.
  • Physical therapy can help recover sensation in numb areas as well as improve stability, regain muscle tone, and reduce clumsiness.
  • Counselling or psychotherapy can help with the development of coping mechanisms for pain and loss of function.
  • Surgery might help those affected by compression related neuropathy.
  • Braces can sometimes alleviate pain and improve stability.
  • Improved eating habits and nutrition can significantly help in recovery process and lessen symptoms.
  • Physical activity helps increase muscle tone and has been shown to reduce pain in the extremities.
  • Eliminating alcohol and cigarettes also helps the body function better.

Can CBD be an effective treatment for polyneuropathy?

CBD has been observed to reduce pain and inflammation, while promoting healing, which shows a potential for it being a valuable aid in the management of polyneuropathy, considering Its safety and lack of side effects, even in the elderly.

It even has the potential benefit of allowing people to reduce the amount of painkillers they take for the condition and, due to its anti anxiety effects, can also help sufferers cope with their condition.

The fact that CBD potentially promotes healing is extremely helpful as well, since peripheral nerve cells continue to grow throughout our lives, which makes it possible for certain nerve damage or death to be recovered if the body has the capacity to regenerate effectively enough.

I hope this information was helpful. I know polyneuropathy can be an extremely tough and frustrating condition to deal with. Being unable to hold a fork during lunch time, or sign papers is extremely stressful, so anything that has a potential to help improve life quality and functionality si a step forward!

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