Peripheral Neuropathy

body_systems.jpgAlternative names: Peripheral neuritis; Neuropathy – peripheral; Neuritis – peripheral 

Definition: Peripheral neuropathy is a problem with the nerves that carry information to and from the brain and spinal cord. This produces pain, loss of sensation, and inability to control muscles.

Peripheral neuropathy occurs when these nerves fail to function properly, resulting in pain, loss of sensation, or inability to control muscles. In some cases, the failure of nerves that control blood vessels, intestines, and other organs results in abnormal blood pressure, digestion problems, and loss of other basic body processes. Peripheral neuropathy may involve damage to a single nerve or nerve group (mononeuropathy) or may affect multiple nerves (polyneuropathy).

There are numerous reasons for nerves to malfunction. In some cases, no cause can be identified.

Peripheral neuropathy is very common. Because there are numerous types and causes of neuropathy and scientists don’t always agree on the same definition of neuropathy, the exact incidence cannot be determined precisely.

Some people have a hereditary predisposition for neuropathy.

Prolonged pressure on a nerve is another risk for developing a nerve injury. Pressure injury may be caused by prolonged immobility (such as a long surgical procedure or lengthy illness) or compression of a nerve by casts, splints, braces, crutches, or other devices.

A detailed history will be needed to determine the cause of the neuropathy. Neurologic examination may reveal abnormalities of movement, sensation, or organ function. (See also entries on the specific nerve dysfunction.) Changes in reflexes and muscle bulk may also be present.

Tests that reveal neuropathy may include:

  • EMG (a recording of electrical activity in muscles)
  • Nerve conduction tests
  • Nerve biopsy
  • Blood tests to screen for medical conditions, such as diabetes and vitamin deficiency, among others.

Tests for neuropathy are guided by the suspected cause of the disorder, as suggested by the history, symptoms, and pattern of symptom development. They may include various blood tests, x-rays, scans, or other tests and procedures.


The first steps of treatment are to identify and treat the underlying medical problem (such as diabetes) or remove the cause (such as alcohol). Other goals include controlling symptoms, curing the disorder if possible, and helping the patient gain maximum independence and self-care ability.