Peripheral Neuropathy: More than Loss of Touch

2011-11-17 | |
Last updated: 2019-10-28

The sense of touch is provided by a vast network of different sensory cells and nerves located within our skin. In fact, with some of the highest concentrations of receptors, our finger tips have roughly 2500 sensory receptors per square centimeter or 16100 per square inch. Each of our hands has roughly 17,000 of just the touch sensors. Nerves collect all of the signals generated by these various sensory cells.

Working together, these nervous system cells detect pressure, temperature, vibration and, obviously, pain. The signals that these cells create are fed into progressively larger nerve bundles, the spine and ultimately these signals reach the brain. Within the brain, the signals are interpreted. This occurs, of course, unless the sensor cells or the nerves along the path are damaged, a condition called Peripheral Neuropathy.

The injury of the skin’s network of nerves and sensor cells is called Peripheral Neuropathy because the nerve cells involved form a part of the peripheral nervous system.

What Is Peripheral Neuropathy?

While damage can occur anywhere along the route from the sensory cells to the brain, the most common location for injury is within the skin. This makes sense if you think about the large area of the skin and that this organ is the barrier between our insides and the outside world. As a result, many different types of injuries or diseases affecting the skin can impair the ability of nerves in the skin to properly send signals. Even though nerve damage can occur in any area of our skin, most cases occur in the hands and feet.

While we might be inclined to think of nerve damage as preventing nerve signals from passing at all, as in the case of a severed spinal chord, that is not necessarily the case. Peripheral nerve injury can cause both signals to be lost and invalid signals to be sent. This is because the nerve damage often involves the protective layer on the surface of nerve cells rather than simply a break between nerve cells. When this layer is damaged, the signals passing through the nerve can be distorted resulting in unexpected nerve sensations.

What Are The Symptoms of Peripheral Neuropathy?

Among the symptoms of Peripheral Neuropathy, the most common are those related to the sense of touch. Numbness, sensitivity to touch and tingling of affected areas is common. At the same, burning sensations and pain can also occur but are less common. If some cases, neuropathic pain treatment can be required due to the severity of the pain.

Other symptoms associated with Peripheral Neuropathy relate to the lack of effective nerve interaction with affected areas. This can mean a lack of sweating in certain locations. As well it can cause the skin to have too much or too little blood flow. This subsequently appears as skin that is flushed or white in appearance. It can also mean dry or shiny skin. In the worst cases, it can lead to atrophy of the area.

Who Is Affected By Peripheral Neuropathy And What Causes It?

Peripheral Neuropathy is very common and affects roughly 8% of the US population. That represents approximately 24 million Americans. There are many causes for the condition including the less common causes such as thyroid gland disorders, Vitamin B12 deficiency, celiac disease, poisoning with neurotoxins and connective tissue diseases. Even aging can contribute to the condition according to Stanford University researchers who observed declining nerve densities in the skin of aging patients. At the same time, 30% of cases have no known cause.

Among the very common causes of the condition, 30% are as a result of diabetes. In fact, according to US government statistics, between 60 and 70% of people with diabetes suffer from Peripheral Neuropathy. Among diabetics, high blood sugar levels cause the nerve damage.

One other large group affected by peripheral nerve damage are people who take chemotherapy for cancer treatment. According to the National Cancer Institute, between 30-40% will suffer with condition following their treatment. This means millions of people are affected.

Additional groups commonly affected by the condition are those with HIV and AIDS. The University of Chicago estimates that roughly 1 in 3 people with HIV or AIDS has the peripheral nerve damage. With roughly 1.2 million people in the US having HIV/AIDS, this means that there 400,000 will experience Peripheral Neuropathy. With the bulk of those affected by HIV/AIDS worldwide in Africa, this means that roughly 7.5 million people on the continent can also expect to experience Peripheral Neuropathy.

Another sexually transmitted disease that can result in the condition is Hepatitis C. US statistics estimate roughly 3.2 million people in the US have Hepatitis C. Based on studies from the University of Brescia, 37% of people with the disease will have Peripheral Neuropathy. This means roughly 1.2 million Americans having peripheral nerve damage as a result of Hepatitis C.

One last significant cause for Peripheral Neuropathy is as a side effect from bariatric surgery. According to research from the Mayo Clinic, 7% of bariatric surgery patients will develop the condition. With more than 220,000 such surgeries performed in the US as of 2008 and the numbers only increasing, there is a significant number of people who will be affected by the condition.

Why Is Peripheral Neuropathy More Than A Loss Of Touch?

Because the area of our skin is so large and because the skin is our primary barrier in interacting with the outside the world, our chances of damaging it are relatively high in comparison to damaging our other senses. Additionally, numerous diseases and even medical treatments can affect our peripheral nervous system to cause Peripheral Neuropathy.

Though we may not think about in this way, our sense of touch is very important. On a personal health level, damage to the nerves in the hands and feet can put us at greater risk for injury and infections, especially if we do not pay attention to the injury. If the injured area has nerve damage, it can also take longer to heal. Our sense of touch both prevents injury and promotes healing so when it is not functioning, we are at a disadvantage.

As well, feeling nerve pain or odd nerve sensations can also affect us in other ways. Research by the Geisinger Center for Health Research found that diabetics with Peripheral Neuropathy were 18% more likely to lose work productivity because of the condition. Clearly, our sense of touch is important to also protecting our ability to provide for our families and ourselves.

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Category: Disease Information, Health Risks, Symptom Information

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