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Peripheral neuropathy

3-minute read

If you have pain, numbness or tingling in your arms and legs, you might have peripheral neuropathy. There are other causes too, so it's a good idea to find out as much as you can.

What is peripheral neuropathy?

Peripheral neuropathy refers to damage to the nerves that carry signals between your brain, your spinal cord and the rest of your body. 

There are three types of nerves:

  • sensory nerves carry information about touch, taste, sight, hearing and smell
  • motor nerves carry information to help you move
  • autonomic nerves carry information to help with balance, sweating, digestion and many of the things you do without thinking.

Peripheral neuropathy usually affects the sensory nerves in your hands, feet, arms or legs. Some people find it affects only a small part of their body, like a finger or a toe. 

However, it can also affect the autonomic nerves and motor nerves.

Symptoms of peripheral neuropathy

Common symptoms of peripheral neuropathy include pain, pins and needles, numbness, tingling, a burning sensation, aching, cramps and weakness. They can range from mild to severe. Symptoms are often worse at night.

You can check your symptoms using healthdirect’s online Symptom Checker.

What causes peripheral neuropathy?

The most common cause of peripheral neuropathy is diabetes, either type I diabetes or type 2 diabetes. This is called diabetic neuropathy.

Other causes of peripheral neuropathy include:

Some medicines can also cause peripheral neuropathy, especially if you take them for a long time. Other causes include types of chemotherapy, and toxins such as lead, mercury and arsenic

Diagnosis of peripheral neuropathy

If you suspect you might have peripheral neuropathy, you should talk to your doctor.

Your doctor will discuss your symptoms with you and examine you. They might arrange blood tests to check for things like diabetes or vitamin deficiency. 

Sometimes, if you have peripheral neuropathy, your doctor will be unable to find any cause.

Treatment of peripheral neuropathy

The type of treatment will depend on what is causing the problem.

If you have a specific condition such as diabetes, or a vitamin deficiency, you will be advised to have treatment specific for that condition. But sometimes, there might not be a clear cause, and sometimes there might be a cause but no specific treatment. The aim then is to treat the symptoms.

The usual pain relief medicines, such as paracetamol and ibuprofen, won’t necessarily decrease pain caused by peripheral neuropathy. In this case, you should talk to your doctor about other forms of pain relief.

If you have a small area of pain you could try capsaicin cream, which is made from a natural extract from chilli peppers. 

Prepare for an appointment with your doctor by using healthdirect’s Question Builder tool.

More information

Diabetes Australia has more information on diabetic neuropathy. Call 1300 136 588.

Last reviewed: November 2017

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