Your brain and spinal cord (the central nervous system, or CNS) may be the control center of the body, but they rely on peripheral nervous system (PNS) to carry out their work. The PNS acts like a relay system connecting limbs, organs, and muscles to the brain. It is responsible for reporting sensory information (touch, temperature, pain, etc.) back to the brain, as well as carrying out the brain’s orders.
However, peripheral nerves are not nearly as well protected as the brain and spinal cord, and are more susceptible to injury, toxins, inflammation, and other problems that can inhibit their function. This is called peripheral neuropathy, and it is extremely common in the feet and legs.
What Are the Symptoms of Peripheral Neuropathy?
Because different peripheral nerves have different functions, the symptoms of neuropathy can vary considerably depending on which nerves have been damaged.
Damage to sensory nerves may result in:
- Painful or confusing sensations, including tingling, prickling, burning, freezing, or shocking
- Extreme sensitivity to touch
- Total loss of sensation (numbness)
Damage to motor nerves may result in:
- Loss of muscle tone and weakness
- Loss of coordination and balance
Damage to autonomic nerves (which control non-voluntary functions) may result in:
- Heat intolerance
- Changes in blood pressure
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Bowel, bladder, or digestive problems
What Causes Neuropathy?
By far, the biggest cause of neuropathy is diabetes and prediabetes. High levels of sugar in the bloodstream can poison nerves, and cause inflammation that pinches and compresses them. As a result, a majority of diabetes sufferers will develop at least some form of neuropathy during their lifetime.
Other possible causes and risk factors include:
- Poor diet
- Alcohol abuse
- Physical trauma, either from a specific injury (e.g., auto accident) or from repetitive motions or activities
- Pressure on the nerve from an exterior source, such as neuromas or tumo
- Bacterial or viral infections
- Genetically inherited disorders
- Other diseases (notably kidney disease, liver disease, lymphoma, hypothyroidism, and some forms of cancer)
It is not always possible to identify a root cause.
Why Is Neuropathy So Dangerous for Feet?
If you can’t trust what your body is telling you—because you can’t feel pain, or experience phantom sensations—you are far less likely to realize when a severe injury or wound occurs and needs to be addressed. Those with severe neuropathy in their feet and legs are at greatly increased risk of developing chronic injuries, infected wounds, or even severe bony deformities (Charcot foot).
Poor circulation, which is common among those with diabetes, compounds the problem. Low circulation means wounds and injuries can’t heal as quickly, and the immune system isn’t as effective at dealing with bacterial, viral, or fungal infections. As a result, even small cuts and injuries could potentially become major issues that could require complex surgical reconstruction and repair, or outright amputation.
Treatment for Neuropathy
If you have neuropathy—or an associated risk factor, such as diabetes—you should have your feet checked regularly by a foot and ankle physician. Nerve damage is not always reversible, and symptoms do not always manifest themselves until substantial and irreversible damage has already occurred. That’s why it’s so important to stay ahead of the game.
At Northwest Extremity Specialists, our advanced team can provide diagnostic testing, and if necessary provide follow-up medications or treatments to help you manage your condition. This will be in addition to healthy lifestyle habits, which must be adopted if you want to prevent worsening damages. Healthy diet, exercise, and daily management of blood sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure, and other conditions will be key.
To schedule your appointment with the Northwest Extremity Specialists, please complete an online contact form or call the office closest to your location.