April 18, 2016

What is Neuropathy?

Neuropathy might be the most common disease that you’ve never heard of. An estimated 20 million Americans have some form of neuropathy. That’s an astounding 1 in 15 people- we estimate that over 120,000 people in the Austin area have neuropathy.

In the US, neuropathy affects more people than all these better-known diseases combined:

Alzheimer’s Disease 5,400,000
Epilepsy 3,000,000
Rheumatoid Arthritis 1,300,000
HIV 1,200,000
Parkinson’s Disease 500,000
Multiple Sclerosis 400,000
Total 11,800,000

Neuropathy means “Sickness” of the Peripheral Nerves

Neuropathy is a disorder of the peripheral nervous system that impairs its ability to carry communication from the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body (arms, legs and face). When the peripheral nervous system is damaged, these messages are not  transmitted properly.

There are many different types of neuropathy, and symptoms and treatment options vary case-by-case.  The different neuropathies can be classified by the type of nerve cell affected (motor, sensory and/or autonomic), the type of nerve damage (axonal or demyelinating), and the cause.

Motor nerves = from spinal cord to muscles
Sensory nerves = from sensory organelle (ie, skin) to spinal cord

  • Large fiber sensory neuropathy (symptoms experienced = position sense and balance)
  • Small fiber sensory neuropathy (symptoms experienced = pain and temperature)

Autonomic nerves = control blood pressure, sweating, bladder function, heart rate, digestion, etc.

Diagram of a sensory nerve (above) and a motor nerve (below):

Why is neuropathy not better known?

  • Because it is often misdiagnosed.
  • Because it is often the side effect of another disease like diabetes.
  • Because patients are often told their symptoms are “in their heads.”
  • Because people with neuropathy often look “normal.”

Sources:  The Foundation for Peripheral Neuropathy, Alzheimer’s Association, Epilepsy Foundation Statistics, American College of Rheumatology, Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, National Multiple Sclerosis Society.