What Are the Top Causes of Neuropathy?

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on August 13, 2022
4 min read

Neuropathy means that your nerves don’t work the way they should because your nerve cells, or neurons, are damaged or destroyed. It can cause changes in your:

  • Sensory nerves, which you need to feel things. You may have pain, tingling, or numbness.
  • Motor nerves, which control movement. Damage in these nerves can cause weakness.
  • Autonomic nerves, which manage physical functions you don’t control, such as your heart rate and blood pressure.

It’s a common condition, especially among people with diabetes. But many other things can cause neuropathy, too.

  1. Injury

Car accidents, sports injuries, broken bones, or even surgery can cause nerve damage. That can lead to neuropathy.

What helps: Talk with your doctor about ways to control any pain and whether physical therapy, acupuncture, or aids such as a brace, cane, or orthopedic shoes would be useful.

  1. Repetitive Physical Stress

This includes activities such as typing, playing tennis, or any activity that repeatedly uses a certain part of the body (like your wrist or elbow). This can cause your ligaments, tendons, and muscles to become inflamed and swollen. That puts pressure on your nerves, which can lead to neuropathy.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is one of the most common repetitive stress conditions that cause neuropathy. It happens when a certain nerve in your wrist and hand becomes inflamed from repeated or awkward movements. This can make your hands tingle and feel numb.

What helps: Physical therapy or occupational therapy is a good place to learn different ways to heal injuries and learn new ways to do everyday tasks to help prevent new injuries.

  1. Vitamin Imbalances or Deficiencies

If you don’t get enough of certain vitamins, your nerves can become damaged and stop working properly.

Vitamin B12 is especially important for your nerves to work properly. Vitamins E, B1, B6, B9, folate, and niacin also play a role. A restricted or poor diet or health problems such as Crohn’s disease are some reasons you may not get enough vitamins.

What helps: If you’re on a diet, or if you have a condition that makes it hard for you to get the nutrients you need, ask your doctor for advice. They may refer you to a dietitian.

  1. Too Much Alcohol

Heavy drinking can rob your body of essential nutrients, especially B vitamins like folate and B12. It can damage nerve tissue, too. That can cause neuropathy, especially in your arms and legs.

What helps: If you or others think that you might be drinking too much, talk with your doctor. It’s a confidential way to find out about resources that can help.

  1. Some Medications

Chemotherapy, HIV drugs, and some other drugs can cause tingling, numbness, or even movement problems.

What helps: Most of the time, neuropathy goes away after you stop using the medication, though it usually takes several months. Check with your doctor before you stop taking any prescription medicine.

  1. Poison or Toxins

If you’re exposed to heavy metals like lead, arsenic, or mercury, or certain insecticides or industrial-strength chemicals, you could develop neuropathy.

What helps: If you know you’ve been exposed, call your doctor or poison control center.

  1. Infections and Immune System Disorders

Some germs can damage your nerve fibers. These include HIV, the herpes virus, and the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.

In an autoimmune disorder, your immune system mistakenly attacks your body. Some, including rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, can also affect nerve tissue and may cause neuropathy.

What helps: If you know you have an immune system disorder, follow the treatment plan your doctor gave you, and let them know how you’re doing or if you have any side effects.

  1. Diabetes

It doesn’t happen overnight, but diabetes can cause nerve damage, especially if your blood sugar is out of control. You may have pain, tingling, or no feeling in your feet, legs, and hands. Or you might not have any symptoms.

What helps: It’s important to get your blood sugar under control. If you have pain, tell your doctor. And be sure to clean your feet daily and check them for any problems, in case you don’t have feeling in them.

  1. Other Conditions

These include vascular disorders (which affect your body’s blood vessels), kidney problems, cancer, benign tumors, and other diseases.

It’s less common, but some hereditary or genetic conditions can cause neuropathy.

What helps: Treating the underlying condition may help stop nerve damage from becoming worse.

  1. No Known Cause

Sometimes doctors can’t figure out what causes neuropathy. They call it “idiopathic neuropathy” or say it’s of “idiopathic origin.” (Idiopathic means that they don’t know what the cause is.)

This accounts for 30% to 40% of all neuropathy cases. It’s most likely to happen to you if you’re over age 60, but it’s not a normal part of aging. With idiopathic neuropathy, neuropathy symptoms usually come on slowly.

What helps: Focus on treating the symptoms. Your doctor can make recommendations for that.

If you have tingling, numbness, loss of coordination, muscle weakness, or other things that don’t seem normal, see your doctor right away. They will give you a checkup and talk to you about your health history. In many cases, treating the condition or problem that causes your neuropathy can curb nerve damage and ease your symptoms.

If these symptoms happen suddenly, call 911 for immediate medical help.