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Peripheral Neuropathy Explained

Part 4 of 5 - More Causes of Peripheral Neuropathy

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Updated August 12, 2014

Cancers and Tumors

Cancers and benign tumors can infiltrate or exert damaging pressure on nerve fibers. Tumors also can arise directly from nerve tissue cells. Widespread polyneuropathy is often associated with the neurofibromatoses, genetic diseases in which multiple benign tumors grow on nerve tissue. Neuromas, benign masses of overgrown nerve tissue that can develop after any penetrating injury that severs nerve fibers, generate very intense pain signals and sometimes engulf neighboring nerves, leading to further damage and even greater pain.

Neuroma formation can be one element of a more widespread neuropathic pain condition called complex regional pain syndrome or reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome, which can be caused by traumatic injuries or surgical trauma.

Paraneoplastic syndromes, a group of rare degenerative disorders that are triggered by a person's immune system response to a cancerous tumor, also can indirectly cause widespread nerve damage.

Repetitive Stress

Repetitive stress often leads to entrapment neuropathies, a special category of compression injury. Cumulative damage can result from repetitive, forceful, awkward activities that require flexing of any group of joints for prolonged periods. The resulting irritation may cause ligaments, tendons, and muscles to become inflamed and swollen, constricting the narrow passageways through which some nerves pass. These injuries become more frequent during pregnancy, probably because weight gain and fluid retention also constrict nerve passageways.

Toxins

Toxins can also cause peripheral nerve damage. People who are exposed to heavy metals (arsenic, lead, mercury, thallium), industrial drugs, or environmental toxins frequently develop neuropathy.

Certain anticancer drugs, anticonvulsants, antiviral agents, and antibiotics have side effects that can cause neuropathy secondary to drugs, thus limiting their long-term use.

Infections and Autoimmune Disorders

Infections and autoimmune disorders can cause peripheral neuropathy. Viruses and bacteria that can attack nerve tissues include:

These viruses severely damage sensory nerves, causing attacks of sharp, lightning-like pain. Postherpetic neuralgia often occurs after an attack of shingles and can be particularly painful.

The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS, also causes extensive damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems. The virus can cause several different forms of neuropathy, each strongly associated with a specific stage of active immunodeficiency disease. A rapidly progressive, painful polyneuropathy affecting the feet and hands is often the first clinical sign of HIV infection.

Bacterial diseases such as Lyme disease, diphtheria, and leprosy are characterized by extensive peripheral nerve damage.

  • diphtheria and leprosy in the U.S is rare.
  • Lyme disease is on the rise. Lyme disease can cause a wide range of neuropathic disorders, including a rapidly developing, painful polyneuropathy, often within a few weeks after initial infection by a tick bite.

Viral and bacterial infections can also cause indirect nerve damage by provoking conditions referred to as autoimmune disorders, in which specialized cells and antibodies of the immune system attack the body's own tissues. These attacks typically cause destruction of the nerve's myelin sheath or axon.

Some neuropathies are caused by inflammation resulting from immune system activities rather than from direct damage by infectious organisms.

Inflammatory neuropathies can develop quickly or slowly, and chronic forms can exhibit a pattern of alternating remission and relapse.

  • Guillain-Barré syndrome (acute inflammatory demyelinating neuropathy) can damage motor, sensory, and autonomic nerve fibers. Most people recover from this syndrome although severe cases can be life threatening.
  • Chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP) is generally less dangerous, usually damages sensory and motor nerves, leaving autonomic nerves intact.
  • Multifocal motor neuropathy is a form of inflammatory neuropathy that affects motor nerves exclusively; it may be chronic or acute.

Inherited neuropathies

Inherited peripheral neuropathies are caused by inborn mistakes in the genetic code or by new genetic mutations.

  • Some genetic errors lead to mild neuropathies with symptoms that begin in early adulthood and result in little impairment.
  • More severe hereditary neuropathies often appear in infancy or childhood.

The most common inherited neuropathies are a group of disorders collectively referred to as Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (resulting from flaws in genes responsible for manufacturing neurons or the myelin sheath). Symptoms include:

  • extreme weakening and wasting of muscles in the lower legs and feet
  • gait abnormalities
  • loss of tendon reflexes
  • numbness in the lower limbs

Go on to Part 5 --- Treatment of Peripheral Neuropathy --->

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