What is Peripheral Neuropathy?
Peripheral neuropathy refers to a number of conditions that involve damage to the peripheral nervous system, the vast communication network that sends signals between the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) and all other parts of the body. Peripheral nerves send many types of sensory information to the central nervous system (CNS), such as a message that the feet are cold, I feel like I have socks on my feet all the time, or pain. They also carry signals from the brain to the rest of the body. Best known are the signals to the muscles that tell them to contract, which is how we move, but there are different types of signals that help control everything from our heart and blood vessels, digestion, urination, sexual function, to our bones and immune system. The peripheral nerves are like the cables that connect the different parts of a computer. When they do not communicate properly, complex functions can grind to a halt.
Nerve signals in neuropathy are disrupted in three ways:
- Loss of signals normally sent (like a broken wire)
- Inappropriate signaling when there shouldn’t be any (like static on a telephone line)
- Errors that distort the messages being sent (like a wavy television picture)
Symptoms can range from mild to disabling and are rarely life-threatening. The symptoms depend on the type of nerve fibers affected and the type and severity of damage. Symptoms may develop over days, weeks, or years.
More than 20 million people in the United States have been estimated to have some form of peripheral neuropathy, but this figure may be significantly higher—not all people with symptoms of neuropathy are tested for the disease and tests currently don’t look for all forms of neuropathy. Neuropathy is often misdiagnosed due to its complex array of symptoms.