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Brain & Nervous System Health Center

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Peripheral Neuropathy - Topic Overview

What is peripheral neuropathy?

Peripheral neuropathy is a problem that affects the peripheral nerves. These are the nerves that control your sense of touch, how you feel pain and temperature, and your muscle strength. Most of the time the problem starts in the fingers and toes. As it gets worse, it moves into the limbs, causing pain and loss of feeling in the feet, legs, and hands.

When you have peripheral neuropathy, you may have less feeling in your fingers and toes. You may have trouble with your balance. It may be hard to do things that require coordination, such as walking or fastening buttons.

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What causes peripheral neuropathy?

Doctors don't always know what causes peripheral neuropathy. It is often caused by other health problems. It can also run in families.

The most common cause is diabetes. Having your blood sugar too high for too long a time can damage the nerves.

Other problems can also cause peripheral neuropathy, such as:

  • Kidney problems. These can lead to toxic substances in the blood that damage nerves.
  • Vitamin deficiencies and alcoholism. Not getting enough nutrients, such as vitamin B-12, can damage nerves. Overuse of alcohol and not eating a healthy diet can lead to these vitamin deficiencies.
  • Infectious or inflammatory diseases, such as HIV or Guillain-Barré syndrome. These diseases can damage the central and peripheral nerves.
  • Exposure to toxic substances, such as arsenic, or by certain medicines such as those used for chemotherapy.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms can occur slowly over time. The most common ones are:

  • Numbness, tightness, and tingling, especially in the legs, hands, and feet.
  • Loss of feeling.
  • Burning, shooting, or stabbing pain in the legs, hands, and feet. Often the pain is worse at night.
  • Weakness and loss of balance.
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