Peripheral neuropathy refers to damage to your peripheral nerves, which are the nerves that branch out from your spinal cord and run through the rest of your body.
Even though peripheral neuropathy is common, it can be hard to find specialists who know the best ways to treat it. That’s because it can occur for dozens of reasons, including infections, injuries, and lifestyle choices.
Fortunately, neurologists from University of Iowa Health Care diagnose and treat all types of this condition.
We can help you manage peripheral neuropathy caused by an injury or illness, such as a pinched nerve or diabetes. And we’re internationally recognized for our expertise in inherited forms of peripheral neuropathy (also known as Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease).
No matter what’s causing your peripheral neuropathy, our team can help. We offer the treatments and support you need to reduce your symptoms and stay as active and functional as possible.
Peripheral neuropathy symptoms and diagnosis
The peripheral nervous system contains all the nerves found outside your brain and spinal cord. These nerves include:
- Autonomic nerves that control your bladder, blood pressure, heart rate, and other bodily functions
- Motor nerves that control your muscles
- Sensory nerves that help you feel temperature, texture, pain, and more
Any damage to these nerves can result in a wide range of symptoms known as peripheral neuropathy. And the first step in improving—and possibly reversing—peripheral neuropathy is to find out what’s causing it.
People develop peripheral nerve damage for many reasons. These include:
- Abnormal genes (gene mutations) that are passed from one generation to the next
- Cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy
- Chronic alcohol use
- Chronic exposure to harmful substances such as lead, mercury, or industrial chemicals
- Infections such as HIV, shingles, and the Epstein-Barr virus
- Low levels of vitamins that help keep your nerves healthy, including vitamin E, niacin, and some B vitamins
- Medical conditions, including diabetes (the most common cause of peripheral neuropathy), lupus, Sjogren’s syndrome, Guillain-Barré syndrome, kidney disease, and thyroid disorders
- Repetitive motion injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome
- Orthopedic injuries, including broken bones and crush injuries
Symptoms of peripheral neuropathy vary, depending on what’s causing it and which nerves are affected. They include:
- Bladder or bowel problems, such as urinary incontinence
- Burning, throbbing, or stabbing pain
- Chronic wounds, especially on your feet
- Excessive sweating
- Extreme sensitivity to touch or temperature
- Foot abnormalities such as high arches or hammertoes
- Heat intolerance
- Inability to feel hot or cold or sense temperature changes
- Muscle weakness
- Numbness or tingling, especially in your hands or feet
Because there isn’t a single, definitive test for peripheral neuropathy, we’ll run several tests. These tests help us narrow down—and eventually confirm—what’s causing your symptoms.
Your tests might include:
- A neurological examination to test your strength, balance, reflexes, and more
- Blood tests to check for vitamin deficiencies, immune system problems, and medical conditions such as diabetes
- An electromyogram (EMG) and nerve conduction study to measure how well your muscles respond to nerve stimulation
- Imaging tests, such as an MRI or CT scan, to see if you have a herniated disc or another condition that can compress your peripheral nerves
- A nerve biopsy to look for signs of damage on a small piece of nerve removed from your body
- Neurogenetic testing to see if you have a gene mutation that causes inherited peripheral neuropathy (Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease)
It’s important to find a neurologist with expertise in peripheral neuropathy—like those from UI Health Care—because each type causes different symptoms and progresses at different rates.
By identifying which type you have, we can treat you more effectively.
Peripheral neuropathy treatment from UI Health Care
We offer all the treatments you might need to improve or overcome your peripheral neuropathy symptoms.
Treating your underlying condition
In some cases, we can help relieve pain or restore function by treating the condition that caused your peripheral neuropathy.
For example, if you have nerve damage caused by diabetes (diabetic neuropathy), you can prevent it from getting worse by maintaining healthy blood sugar levels.
Our neurologists can refer you to any other UI Health Care specialists who should be involved in your care.
Treating your symptoms
Even if your peripheral neuropathy isn’t curable, certain treatments can help. We offer a wide range of options that can help you take control of your symptoms—and continue to take part in your favorite activities.
- Rehabilitation: Occupational therapy can teach you easier ways to perform everyday tasks, while physical therapy can help you maintain strength, balance, and mobility.
- Mobility aids: Orthopedic devices such as canes, walkers, and foot or hand braces can help you get around or improve your grip.
- Medications: Prescription drugs, including pills, skin creams, and patches can help reduce pain or inflammation.
- Intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG): This IV infusion treatment can improve peripheral neuropathy caused by autoimmune diseases such as lupus. Because it’s made from special blood cells that help fight germs, it can help strengthen your immune system.
- Surgery: Certain surgical procedures, such as laminectomy and carpal tunnel surgery, can relieve pressure on your nerves.
A team approach to peripheral neuropathy care
Because there isn’t a one-size-fits-all treatment for peripheral neuropathy, our neurologists often partner with other UI Health Care experts. We’ll work together to improve your symptoms and your overall health.
To that end, one or more of the following providers may also be involved in your care:
- Endocrinologists who can help you get your diabetes (and diabetes-related nerve damage) under control.
- Infectious disease experts who treat certain infections, such as HIV, that are known to cause peripheral neuropathy.
- Neurogenetics experts who can see if your condition is caused by a gene mutation. We can also coordinate genetic testing and counseling for your immediate family members who want to see if they carry the same abnormal gene.
- Orthopedic surgeons who can treat structural foot problems, such as high arches and hammertoes, that are common in people with inherited peripheral neuropathy.
- Rheumatologists who specialize in treating immune system problems and inflammatory diseases and can help manage conditions like lupus and Sjogren’s syndrome.
- Urologists who can help you manage urinary incontinence or other bladder problems caused by peripheral nerve damage.