Have you ever learned a piece of valuable new information about neuropathy and thought to yourself, “I wish I would’ve known that when I was first diagnosed.” If you’re anything like me, this is a somewhat frequent occurrence. The reality is that while a lot has been (and is being) discovered about neuropathy in the scientific and medical communities, our understanding of it is an evolving process. Compared to a decade or two ago, we know considerably more now than we did – but even so, there is much that is yet to be fully understood about this silent but painful nerve condition.
As I look back on all I’ve learned about neuropathy over the years – from causes to treatments and everything in between – there is a lot I wish I’d been told about sooner. As with any battle against a chronic condition – knowledge is power. The more you know about your neuropathy – including its potential causes and the steps you can take to most effectively treat it and prevent it from spreading – the better your chances are of reducing your neuropathy related symptoms and preventing further nerve damage.
With that said, here are 11 things I wish I’d known about neuropathy when I was first diagnosed:
There are many potential causes – including medications
Some of the known causes of neuropathy include diabetes, chemotherapy, exposure to toxins, surgery, injury or trauma, vitamin B12 deficiency, excessive amounts of vitamin B6, autoimmune diseases, nutritional imbalances, excessive alcohol consumption and even medications. Knowing the cause of your neuropathy is one of the most important factors in determining how to treat it.
In some cases, the cause of neuropathy will remain a mystery even after thorough testing and investigation. This is referred to as idiopathic neuropathy, meaning the cause is unknown. In most cases, however, doctors should be able to arrive at a cause (or number of causes).
Some Causes Are Reversible
One of the dreaded realities we often associated with neuropathy is that the damage is irreversible – that you’re stuck with the pain, tingling or numbness forever. While in many cases the damage and symptoms may last indefinitely, there are cases in which the damage may be reversible. This largely depends on the cause of your neuropathy and how quickly you catch it and take steps to reverse it (obviously, the earlier the better).
Among the causes in which damage has the potential to be stopped and even reversed are diabetes, vitamin B12 deficiencies, nutritional deficiencies, heavy alcohol consumption and medications. Of course, to have any hope of stopping or reversing the damage one must determine the cause of the damage and take immediate steps to remedy the problem.
For those with diabetes or nutritional deficiencies, managing blood sugar and improving diet is key to reversing the damage. Those with vitamin B12 deficiencies should work with their doctor to determine ways to eliminate the deficiency through diet or supplementation. Finally, those with neuropathy caused by alcohol or medications should restrict or eliminate the use of the substance causing the damage.
Nerve Damage Can Spread If Underlying Cause Isn’t Addressed
The peripheral nervous system is comprised of nerves running from the brain and spinal chord to other parts of the body. Damage to the peripheral nerves typically manifests itself first in our extremities – usually the hands or feet. What many neuropathy patients don’t realize is that over time these symptoms can spread to other parts of the body – including the arms, ankles, legs and more – if the underlying cause isn’t addressed. This is why both early detection and treatment are so critical.
Look Out For Early Indicators of Peripheral Neuropathy
The earlier you can catch neuropathy the better your chances of preventing the symptoms from spreading. Some of the early signs of neuropathy to watch out for include:
- Gradual numbness or tingling sensations in the feet or hands (which may spread into the legs and arms)
- Sharp, stabbing pains
- Intense burning pain
- Extreme sensitivity to touch
- Loss of balance or coordination
- Muscle weakness, loss of motor skills
- Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)
Neuropathy Can Affect Muscle Control
Within the peripheral nervous system there are three types of nerves: motor, autonomic and sensory. While the most recognizable symptoms of neuropathy are related to the sensory nerves (i.e. pain, tingling and numbness) – nerve damage can manifest itself in other ways as well. When neuropathy damages the motor nerves, it disrupts the nerves ability to relay messages from the brain and spinal cord to various muscle groups. This can result in difficulties such as loss of balance, difficulty walking, loss of dexterity, cramps or spasms, muscle weakness and loss of muscle control.
Neuropathy Can Affect Autonomic Functions
Another group of nerves that can be affected my neuropathy is the autonomic nerves. The autonomic nervous system is a division of the peripheral nervous system that influences various internal organs such as the heart, stomach, liver, adrenal gland and more. Damage to the autonomic nerves disrupts the signals sent from the brain and spinal cord to these various organs – sometimes resulting in a disruption to the involuntary functions these organs are involved in.
Here are the most common organs affected by damage to the autonomic nerves and the symptoms generally associated with them:
Pain Medications Only Mask the Pain
There are a number of prescription medications available to help cope with neuropathic pain. These medications have been a lifesaver for many sufferers (myself included) as they help take the edge off the pain and make it more manageable. Unfortunately, their purpose is simply to help mask the pain rather than help correct the underlying problem. In addition, there can be negative side effects associated with any prescription medication – so one must be aware of the risks.
Understanding that these prescription medications would not necessarily stop or reverse my nerve damage – but merely mask the symptoms – helped me to recognize the importance of trying various approaches to help address the underlying causes of my neuropathy.
Natural Herbs & Supplements May Help
While prescription medications typically only mask the symptoms, nutritional supplements and herbs may help both relieve symptoms and address underlying causes. By addressing underlying causes or problems, they may help to slow or even stop the nerve damage from spreading. Some of the best supplements and herbs for nerve pain include:
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin D
- Alpha Lipoic Acid
Vitamin B12 is especially important for nerve health. It helps build up and support the myelin sheath – a protective coating around the nerves that shelters them from damage and infection. Studies have shown that high doses of vitamin B12 can promote nerve regeneration of damaged nerves.
Alternative Therapies Can Help (but be patient)
Like a lot of people, I was hesitant about alternative therapies and skeptical about the promised results. However, alternative therapies have proven to be very beneficial in both helping me to manage my pain as well as improving my overall health. That said – there is no miracle therapy or treatment that is going to relieve my nerve pain overnight. I’ve found that with alternative approaches, the results are gradual – but they tend to be lasting results.
Alternative therapies for neuropathy range from low-impact exercises like yoga or tai chi to ancient practices like acupuncture. Here is a good list of popular approaches you may want to explore if you are suffering from neuropathy:
- Tai Chi
- Walking or stationary bike
- TENS therapy (Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation)
Diet Could Be Helping or Hurting Nerve Pain
Something else I wish I’d known was the impact that diet can have on the symptoms of neuropathy. There are certain foods that can aggravate nerve pain as well as ones that can help boost nerve health. Knowing which foods or ingredients fall into which category can make a big difference!
Among the foods that can make neuropathy worse are casein-based products (commonly found in dairy products), artificial sweeteners, gluten, added sugars and refined grains. When consumed excessively, alcohol can also harm the nerves and block the absorption of essential vitamins like B12.
Foods that promote healthier nerves include ones rich in B-complex vitamins such as B12 & B2. Other important vitamins and nutrients for strong nerves include vitamin D, vitamin E, Magnesium and Zinc.
Joining a Neuropathy Support Group Can Help
They say that experience is the mother of all wisdom, so what better way to learn about neuropathy than to join others who have been living with it for years? Joining a support group or online forum can give you insights into living with neuropathy that you might not find elsewhere. They are also safe environments to ask questions and learn what experience others have had with various medications, treatments and therapies.
To find a support group near you, the Neuropathy Support Network has a usefulsupport group search tool. In addition to local support groups, there are a handful of online support groups or forums. For finding information and support online, check out these 10 Resources Every Neuropathy Sufferer Should Bookmark.
Life with neuropathy can be painful, overwhelming and frustrating. As with anything, the more experience one has the more wisdom and insight he or she will gain into how to better cope with the hand that has been dealt. For me, the process has been gradual and frustrating (of course) – but I’ve learned many things that have resulted in small yet meaningful changes to make the road a little smoother. What things do you wish you had known about neuropathy when you were first diagnosed?