Do you have pain, numbness, or tingling in your feet or hands? Does it feel like you are wearing thick socks even when you are barefoot? Does it feel like you are walking on tacks, with every step sending searing pain through your feet? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you may be suffering from peripheral neuropathy.
Peripheral neuropathy is a chronic progressive deterioration of the peripheral nerves, which are located outside of the brain and spinal cord. There are over one hundred causes of peripheral neuropathy. Diabetes is the most common cause, however, other diseases are known to cause neuropathy, including kidney disease, liver disease, and hypothyroidism. Other causes of peripheral neuropathy include autoimmune diseases, infections, alcoholism, pesticide exposure, heavy metal toxicity, vaccinations, spinal stenosis, injuries, vitamin deficiencies, medications, and chemotherapy just to name a few.
Common symptoms of peripheral neuropathy include pain, numbness and tingling that begins in the tips of the toes or fingers, gradually working its way up the extremity. There may be a prickling or tingling sensation in the beginning that, over time, develops into sharp, throbbing or burning pain. Extreme sensitivity to touch can develop, leading to sleepless nights as the weight of the sheet or blanket causes unbearable pain. As peripheral neuropathy progresses, it can interfere with balance, causing injuries from falls. If left untreated, peripheral neuropathy can progress to the point where sores develop in the extremities, leading to infection and amputation. Approximately 51% of people will die within two years following amputation.
Common medical treatment for peripheral neuropathy includes, as you probably expect, medications. Over-the-counter (OTC) medications like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen are often the first medications used. As the peripheral neuropathy progresses and the symptoms worsen, prescription medications like Gabapentin and Lyrica are prescribed. Unfortunately, these medications do nothing to stop the progression of this condition. They merely trick the brain into not feeling the symptoms as intensely. The patient temporarily feels better while the nerves continue to deteriorate, and the neuropathy worsens.
Contrary to popular belief, there are treatments available that work on the underlying physiology of this condition to help create an environment within the body in which the blood flow to the nerves can be restored. This allows the nerves to stop deteriorating and allows them to heal. The FDA has actually cleared the use of certain infrared low level light therapies (LLLT) as well as an electrical stimulator that has been shown to help the nerves heal. Nutritional supplements are also important to decrease inflammation and oxidative stress and to improve nitric oxide levels in the body. Nitric oxide is a molecule that is vital for the health of your circulatory system, increasing blood flow to the affected nerves. Other considerations in treatment of peripheral neuropathy are avoiding exposure to environmental toxins, eating a healthy diet, and managing your diabetes (if you have it).
If you are unfortunate enough to have a diagnosis of peripheral neuropathy, don’t take it lying down. It is vital for your future that you take a proactive role in working to stop, and even reverse, its progression.