Lying outside the brain and spinal cord, peripheral nerves relay information between the central nervous system (CNS) and the rest of the body. These nerves run throughout the human body. When multiple peripheral nerves are damaged, the condition is termed as polyneuropathy.
What is polyneuropathy?
Polyneuropathy is a condition wherein the peripheral nerves become damaged, affecting nerves in the skin, muscles, and organs. However, this condition does not affect the brain and the spine. In polyneuropathy, several nerves in different parts of the body get damaged at the same time.
Polyneuropathy can affect nerves that look after movement (motor neuropathy), feeling (sensory neuropathy), or both (sensorimotor neuropathy). It can also damage nerves responsible for key functions like blood pressure, digestion, bladder control, and heart rate.
Types of polyneuropathy
The two most prevalent patterns of polyneuropathy are Acute and Chronic. While some neuropathies take years to develop, others can rapidly develop in a few days.
When the condition develops suddenly with severe symptoms, it is termed acute polyneuropathy. It most commonly occurs when there is an autoimmune reaction or there is an infection causing nerve damage. Acute polyneuropathy is typically treatable in a short span of time.
Chronic polyneuropathy develops when the symptoms cannot be treated quickly and last for a long time. It can be the result of underlying condition like kidney failure, diabetes, etc. However, ascertaining the cause isn’t easy.
Causes of polyneuropathy
Broadly, there are 3 causes of polyneuropathy – acquired, hereditary, and idiopathic.
Acquired means the nerve damage is caused by an event external to the body, such as a physical injury or infection. It can also be the result of an underlying medical condition that’s causing complications.
Hereditary polyneuropathy means it is passed to the individual by a parent. These conditions result in gradual nerve damage.
However, some cases have no known cause; this is termed as idiopathic neuropathy.
Typically, acute forms of polyneuropathy happen because of causes like –
- Antibiotics and sedatives
- Autoimmune disorders such as Guillain-Barré syndrome
- Cancer affecting the nervous system
On the other hand, chronic forms are often idiopathic, but may have causes like –
- Nutritional or vitamin deficiencies
- Kidney failure
Symptoms of polyneuropathy
Depending on the nerves affected, polyneuropathy can produce a variety of symptoms –
- Burning pain in the limbs
- Tingling sensations
- Pins and needles
- Sleep problems due to pain
- Difficulty using arms and legs
- Lack of coordination
- Digestive issues
- Extreme sensitivity to physical touch
- Unusual sweating
- Bladder problems
- Foot and leg ulcers
- Muscle twitching
- Muscle weakness
- Heat intolerance
- Blood pressure abnormalities
If left untreated for a long time, some complications can develop –
- Falls and injury arising from a lack of coordination and muscle weakness
- Accidental burns and skin damage due to numbness and an inability to feel pain
- Infections due to unnoticed and prolonged burns, injuries, cuts, etc. on the legs and feet
Polyneuropathy treatment is designed based on the condition causing it and where in the body symptoms manifest. Sometimes, doctors will prescribe pain medications, including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
Typical polyneuropathy treatments include medication, medical therapies and procedures, and alternative treatments.
Different types of medication are used to treat polyneuropathy and its symptoms –
- Medication for associated conditions causing polyneuropathy such as insulin for diabetes
- Pain medications for pain relief from mild to moderate pain
- Prescription medications such as antidepressants, corticosteroid injections, seizure medications, etc.
The following medical procedures are widely used –
- Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, wherein a gentle current of electricity is passed through the skin for pain and sensitivity relief
- Plasma exchange for inflammatory and autoimmune conditions, wherein antibodies and other proteins are separated from the patient’s blood
- Immune globulin therapy for inflammatory and autoimmune conditions, wherein high levels of proteins are given to the patient
- Physical therapy for patients with muscle weakness and coordination issues. This is most likely recommended to patients suffering from traumatic injuries, for regaining control of the body
- Orthotic and other devices like casts, canes, braces, etc. for support and pain relief
If the neuropathy is being caused by pressure on a nerve, a surgery may have to be performed.
Preventing polyneuropathy involves managing underlying conditions and limiting risk factors, apart from making lifestyle changes such as –
- Eating a balance diet
- Avoiding drinking and smoking
- Getting proper sleep and rest
- Limiting events and factors causing physical trauma
Managing underlying conditions such as diabetes is also important to prevent polyneuropathy. If you are suffering from any risk factors, strictly follow the treatment plan designed by your doctor.
If you’re experiencing any symptoms associated with polyneuropathy such as pain, weakness, or tingling in the hands or feet for an extended period of time, see a doctor immediately. Your doctor will devise a treatment to manage symptoms and prevent further damage to the nerves, if your diagnosis is positive.