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Peripheral neuropathy

4-minute read

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 3 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.

What are the 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.

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.

How is peripheral neuropathy diagnosed?

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.

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How is peripheral neuropathy treated?

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

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

If no underlying cause is found, the aim 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. These include anti-epileptic medications or tricyclic anti-depressants.

Physical therapy and medications may be used to relieve the symptoms. Psychological therapy may also be required.

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

Resources and support

Diabetes Australia has more information on diabetic neuropathy. You can also call the National Diabetes Services Scheme helpline on 1800 637 700.

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Last reviewed: December 2019

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