If you look up "peripheral neuropathy" online (and we know you have, because you're doing it right now), you're likely to get a lot of medical information about nerves, circulation, causes, symptoms. Spoiler alert: we'll cover those things in this blog, too.
However, it might be even more important to understand what it all really means in practical terms. In other words: how will nerve damage really alter you day-to-day life? What new struggles will I have to face? What is my future? It's important to cover those things, too.
A Brief Medical Overview
As promised, here's the clinical answer to "what does neuropathy really mean?" Neuropathy does not have one specific cause or mechanism. (In fact, in some cases the cause remains unknown even after testing, which is called idiopathic neuropathy.) The term simply refers to any damage to the nerves.
Most people know that their nerves are responsible for transmitting sensory information back to the brain. If something brushes across your leg, or you accidentally touch a hot stove, it activates the nearby nerves so that you brain can "feel" the sensation.
That is a big part of it, of course. But that's not the only things nerves do. Some nerves are responsible for controlling muscle movement. Other nerves help regulate your body's internal systems (blood pressure, digestion, body temperature, bladder function, etc.).
If you suffer from peripheral neuropathy, any of these functions may be impaired in a number of ways. Therefore, symptoms can range widely, including:
- Unexplained phantom tingling or pain (including burning, freezing, or shooting sensations), or hypersensitivity
- Gradually increasing sensitivity loss and numbness
- Muscle weakness and loss of control
- Poor balance and coordination
- Bladder, bowel, or digestive problems
- Dizziness, light headedness, or nausea
Symptoms are most common in the feet (and following that, the hands), although in time they can spread further and further toward the rest of the body.
What It All Means for Your Life
For those who have never truly experienced neuropathy—or are in the very early stages—random tingling or partial numbness might not seem that bad. That's why we've written this blog: to help you envision what a case of neuropathy might really mean to you in practical terms.
You could lose your ability to drive. In order to safely operate a motor vehicle, you need to know where your feet are in space. You need to be able to find the pedals, feel them underneath your feet, and properly gauge how much pressure to apply.
If you have neuropathy, this may become extremely difficult. You may find that you miss the pedal, or accelerate or brake suddenly and forcefully. In the best case scenario, you might accidentally bump the garage door on your way home. But out on the road, the consequences can be much more severe—both for you and for innocent others.
There is some good news, however, as most cars can be retrofitted with hand controls. It will, of course, take time to relearn how to drive without using your feet. Unfortunately, your health insurance is unlikely to pay for the equipment or install, although organizations such as the Idaho Assistive Technology Project may provide financing asssistance.
You could lose your ability to remain active and mobile. Many of neuropathy's most common symptoms impair the ability to stay active and on your feet in some meaningful way.
Perhaps pain and soreness set in after even a minimal amount of standing or walking. Or maybe a loss of muscle control and coordination prevents you from jogging, hiking, playing tennis, shopping, taking the little ones to the park, or engaging in other coordinated athletic activities. Even climbing a short set of stairs might become a daunting challenge. Ultimately, you may end up walking with a cane or sitting in a wheelchair.
One by one, the little things that make everyday life enjoyable may be reduced or completely taken away. Even going on vacation might seem more trouble than it's worth, unless you're planning to spend your time mostly sitting down.
You could develop serious wounds or injuries on your feet—including those that may force an amputation. Nobody likes getting hurt, but pain has an important role to play in keeping you healthy and safe. Without, your brain has no warning system to alert it when you've placed yourself in danger, or suffered a serious wound, burn, or injury.
Your feet are especially vulnerable. First, the effects of neuropathy tend to be worst there. Second, circulation to the feet is generally poor, especially if you have diabetes. (This means wounds and injuries can't heal as quickly, and bones and tissues are quicker to lose their strength and durability). Third, your feet are generally subjected to more stress than other parts of your body.
It's not surprising, then, that neuropathy sufferers are at very high risk for chronic wounds, broken bones, and other foot injuries. Even minor cut or broken blisters can become infected ulcers given enough time.
The prognosis for those with unhealing foot wounds is not especially encouraging for those who don't catch the problem in a timely fashion or delay seeking treatment. Amputations are common, which not only drastically (and permanently) reduces your quality of life, but also your life expectancy. Protecting your feet and inspecting them every day for injuries is an absolute must.
The condition will only worse if you don't seek help—so don't wait. For some, neuropathy symptoms progress rapidly—from asymptomatic to wheelchair-bound within a year or two. For others, neuropathy evolves slowly over many years.
However, in each case, the problem will not go away on its own. And the worse your symptoms get, the more difficult it will become to slow, control, or reverse them. (Not all nerve fibers regenerate, so much of the damage may be permanent.)
If you're starting to notice worrying signs—tingling feet, quivering hands—don't wait another day. At Advanced Foot & Ankle, we can help you protect your feet with shoes or orthotics, and manage your symptoms through medications, laser therapy, and other treatments. We're also happy to refer you to a neurologist or other doctor who can help identify and address the root causes more fully.