Have you ever had the weird feeling that you’re wearing tight gloves when your hands are actually bare? Ever lain awake in bed for hours because the feel of the sheets on your feet made your skin crawl? Have you worn sneakers to a fancy occasion, just because the pain of wearing nice shoes would have been unbearable? If any of these feelings are familiar, you might have peripheral neuropathy.
Neuropathy is a disorder caused by damage to the peripheral nerves, the system of nerves responsible for relaying sensory information between your organs and brain. When the nerves are damaged, you may be overly-sensitive or not sensitive enough to certain sensations. There’s a wide range of symptoms, but people with peripheral neuropathy commonly report burning, tingling, numbness, sharp pains, heightened sensitivity, or that old “stocking and glove” sensation. Neuropathy can occur with any nerves in the peripheral nervous system, pictured here, but the most common areas of discomfort are the hands and feet.
Diabetes is the most common cause of peripheral neuropathy in the United States. Nearly 20% of people with diabetes report symptoms of neuropathy at some point in their lives, but researchers believe that number could be even higher. The scary thing is, you don’t need to be diagnosed with type 1 or type 2 diabetes to be at risk for neuropathy; even people who are “prediabetic” with impaired glucose tolerance can get the weird sensations. That’s because hyperglycemia (high levels of blood sugar) can cause nerve damage even in people with mild diabetes.
What can you do to stop the pain (or burning, or tingling, or numbness…)? The best thing to do is schedule an appointment with your doctor. It pays to get help early. Nerves that are badly damaged may take a long time to heal, and some may never heal completely. The sooner you talk to your doctor, the sooner you can prevent further damage.
Before you see your doctor, ask yourself a few questions about your symptoms. What parts of your body are affected? Do some places feel more uncomfortable than others? Do you feel weak? Is your coordination impaired? All of this will help your doctor make a diagnosis.
Neuropathy is generally treated by approaching the underlying disease. If your neuropathy is caused by diabetes, then it’s treated by getting your blood sugar back under control. There’s no pill that can heal nerves, but pain medication may be able to help. In the meantime, embrace whatever makes you feel better – comfy shoes, socks, or just bare feet – and know that you’re not alone.
For more information about neuropathy, check out You Can Cope with Peripheral Neuropathy: 365 Tips for Living a Full Life by Mims Cushing and Norman Latov.