A neuropathy doctor

Neuropathy: 10 Terms to Know

Neuropathy is a common condition caused by damage to the nerves or a disruption between the nerves throughout the body and the central nervous system. Since the body relies on so many different types of nerves, there are several different types of neuropathy—and a large variety of symptoms and causes. Here is a look at 10 terms to help you understand neuropathy.

  1. Peripheral nerves: Neuropathy is also referred to as “peripheral neuropathy,” because the damage occurs, not in the central nervous system, but on the periphery. The most commonly affected nerves are those in the appendages (hands and feet).
  2. Autonomic: Autonomic nerves are responsible for controlling bodily functions that occur unconsciously. Damage to these nerves may disrupt functioning in the bladder and bowels, making it difficult to go to the bathroom. Swallowing and breathing may become a struggle; things like the pulse or blood pressure may change sporadically, because the body can’t control them in the same way. 
  3. Sensory: Sensory nerves are those that send signals to the brain to interpret smell, taste, sound, sight, or touch. Since peripheral neuropathy is most common in the appendages, the inability to interpret feelings against the skin can be particularly dangerous. When the sensory nerves are compromised, you may find you are either extremely sensitive to things like heat and cold or simply cannot feel them at all. Serious wounds can go unnoticed, which can result in extremely serious injuries and even ulcers or gangrene. 
  4. Motor: Motor nerves are those that move body parts around voluntarily. When the motor nerves are damaged, it can become difficult to do things like stand still with closed eyes. The body’s balance is interrupted. Reflexes are no longer efficient, and the muscles may grow weak. Everyday tasks, like buttoning up a shirt or eating, can be extremely difficult. 
  5. Chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN): While some underlying diseases, particularly diabetes, can cause neuropathy, certain chemicals can damage the nerves sufficiently to cause neuropathy as well. Chemotherapy drugs are one such group of chemicals. While most types of neuropathy are chronic, CIPN may be only a short-term issue. Ongoing research continues to seek ways to prevent peripheral neuropathy in cancer patients. 
  6. Stocking-glove distribution: While neuropathy may occur only in a contained part of the body, CIPN in particular tends to extend its reach over time. Some patients describe the feeling of sensory neuropathy as similar to that of wearing a pair of socks or gloves. The stocking-glove distribution is when the hands and feet of both sides of the body suffer from neuropathy.
  7. Idiopathic: Idiopathic neuropathy means neuropathy has developed for reasons as yet unknown to healthcare professionals. Certain chemicals, autoimmune disorders, diabetes, trauma, and vitamin deficiencies (to name only a few causes) can all be to blame. However, in nearly 30% of neuropathy cases, doctors simply don’t know why neuropathy occurs.
  8. Electromyography: In order to diagnose neuropathy, doctors may need to perform an electromyography. According to the Mayo Clinic, this test “records electrical activity in your muscles to determine if your symptoms, including weakness, are caused by muscle or nerve damage.” It tracks the electrical signals produced by the brain and transposes those signals into a series of graphs or other means of interpretation that allows a specialist to determine if the nerves are damaged. 
  9. Nerve function tests: In addition to electromyography, other tests may be used to examine how well different nerves are working or to what extent damage may have occurred. The autonomic nerves may be reviewed through a series of tests that detect appropriate responses from reflexes, sufficient levels of perspiration, or the way sensations are interpreted by the patient.
  10. Capsaicin: The brain registers foods like peppers as “hot” because of a chemical in their makeup called capsaicin. Creams and lotions can be made containing this ingredient have been found to be mildly helpful in controlling neuropathy. Some patients may find it irritates their skin, although this may disappear after a few weeks of use. It may take some time for these creams to be effective.