Understanding Peripheral Neuropathy: Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention

Medically Reviewed by Christopher Melinosky, MD on May 12, 2023
3 min read

If your doctor thinks you may have peripheral neuropathy, they may refer you to a neurologist, a doctor who specializes in diseases of the nervous system. The neurologist (or your own doctor) will begin by taking a history of your symptoms and examining you for signs of muscle weakness, numbness, and impaired reflexes. You may need blood and urine tests to check for diabetes, vitamin or metabolic deficiencies, and the presence of any underlying disease or genetic defect that may be affecting nerve function. Chemotherapy is a common cause. You’ll also need to take a serious look at your alcohol intake and what medications you are taking.

You may also be given an electromyogram (EMG) test and a nerve conduction velocity (NCV) test, which are used to check nerve and muscle function and measure the electrical properties of the nerves. Using these tests, doctors can often pinpoint the abnormal nerves and determine which part of their structure is damaged.

Nerve and muscle biopsies may also be performed and may provide valuable information about the type and cause of the neuropathy. A lumbar puncture, also known as a spinal tap, is sometimes recommended to help identify infection or inflammation that might be associated with the neuropathy.

If anyone in your family has been diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy or has had similar symptoms, your doctor may want to review their medical records or examine them to look for potential hereditary links to your condition.

Treatment of peripheral neuropathy relies heavily on the cause of the nerve damage. For example, peripheral neuropathy caused by a vitamin deficiency can be treated -- even reversed -- with vitamin therapy and an improved diet. Likewise, nerve damage brought on by alcohol abuse can often be stopped and improved by avoiding alcohol. Peripheral neuropathy caused by toxic substances or medications can often be corrected in much the same way. When neuropathy is related to diabetes, careful monitoring of blood sugar levels may slow its progression and curb symptoms. 

Early diagnosis and treatment of peripheral neuropathy is important because the peripheral nerves have a limited capacity to regenerate, and treatment may only stop it from getting worse, not reverse the damage. If you have become severely impaired, you may need physical therapy to help retain strength and avoid muscle cramping and spasms. Medications to control pain with neuropathy include:

Surgery may be recommended for people with nerve damage from injury or nerve compression. Mobility aids, such as a cane, walker, or wheelchair, may be helpful.

Some forms of peripheral neuropathy can be avoided with good health habits. Eating a nutritious diet, exercising regularly, and limiting how much alcohol you drink can all help prevent nerve damage. Avoiding injuries and toxic chemicals and carefully managing underlying disorders, such as diabetes, can also help prevent peripheral neuropathy.