What Is Neuropathy?

Neuropathy means “sick nerves.” These are damaged nerves that send abnormal signals to the brain causing weakness, pain, numbness and other symptoms. Aching, burning, stabbing, numbness and tingling are some of the ways patients describe neuropathy.

Often misdiagnosed, neuropathy is simply a medical term for any nerve or group of nerves that does not function properly. Neuropathy can occur virtually anywhere in the human body, and there are many causes. For example, a pinched nerve in the spine from a slipped disk is a neuropathy. Carpal tunnel syndrome in the wrist is a form of neuropathy. Shingles is a viral infection that causes a neuropathy in nerves of the skin.

Neuropathies can cause abnormal sensations such as pain, numbness, tingling and burning. Patients with neuropathy can sometimes experience weakness, and even problems with balance. One of the most common forms of neuropathy is that which occurs in the feet. People with diabetes are particularly susceptible to this condition. Elevated blood sugar over many years is toxic to the small nerves that provide sensation to the feet, damaging them over time. This leads to tremendous discomfort and abnormal sensations.

Neuropathy in the Feet & Diabetes

Sometimes, symptoms of neuropathy are the first sign of diabetes, even before patients have an elevated blood sugar, or are even aware that they have the disease. Neuropathy in the feet does not occur only in diabetics. Many people develop these same feelings of numbness, burning, aching and tingling in the feet, and, upon examination, are found not to be diabetic. They may have another cause of neuropathy, such as hepatitis, B12 deficiency, alcoholism, myeloma, auto-immune disease (like lupus) and many others. Even with a thorough investigation, in many cases, the cause of the neuropathy is not found.

The symptoms of neuropathy can be debilitating. Exercising, walking, or even doing normal daily activities can become difficult. Maintaining balance can be challenging, leading to unsteadiness and frequent falls. It can become difficult to sleep due to an increased awareness of your symptoms at bedtime. Chronic pain can interfere with the enjoyment of life, and lead to depression and a sedentary lifestyle. In the worst cases, neuropathy can lead to ulcerations and infections in the feet, which may ultimately result in amputation.