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What is Idiopathic Peripheral Neuropathy?

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  • Written By: Elan Kesilman-Potter
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 28 November 2016
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Idiopathic peripheral neuropathy refers to a condition where there is damage to the peripheral nervous system because of an undetermined cause. Peripheral neuropathy is commonly caused by diabetes, traumatic injuries or metabolic problems, but any peripheral nerve disorders that cannot be definitively linked to a cause are called idiopathic. The causes of idiopathic peripheral neuropathy are unknown, so doctors can treat only the symptoms of nerve damage, such as numbness, pain or extreme sensitivity.

Peripheral neuropathy indicates damage to the peripheral nervous system (PNS), the network of nerves leading off the brain and the spinal cord to the rest of the body. There are more than 50 different potential causes of peripheral neuropathy, and approximately a third of PNS damage is idiopathic, or without a known primary cause. Idiopathic peripheral neuropathy is most prevalent in middle-aged and elderly people.

Symptoms of idiopathic peripheral neuropathy can include numbness, pain or heightened sensitivity in the peripheral nerves. Most patients will first notice symptoms in the hands or feet, but idiopathic nerve damage might occur in other parts of the body. Muscle weakness is another common symptom of the condition.

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In order to arrive at a diagnosis of idiopathic peripheral neuropathy, doctors usually conduct a series of tests to rule out potential sources of the nerve damage. A physical neurological examination examines nerve sensitivity and muscle reflex actions. Some neurologists employ an electromyography test to gauge electrical activity in nerves and muscles. Blood tests are also important to eliminate vitamin deficiencies or toxins as causes of peripheral neuropathy. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scans can also be useful to evaluate the extent of peripheral nerve damage and rule out primary causes.

The treatment of idiopathic peripheral neuropathy depends on the manifested symptoms. Doctors might prescribe pain medications that target nerve cells when there is pain or heightened nerve sensitivity. When medications cannot manage pain, an injection of lidocaine to block a particular nerve might be used. Physical and occupational therapy can also be effective for patients who suffer from muscle weakness.

Idiopathic peripheral neuropathy might improve or worsen depending on its severity. Nerve cells cannot reproduce, but existing nerves have the capability to heal and grow if they are not damaged extensively. The recovery process is slow, however, and might take years because nerves grow at an extremely slow rate. In many cases, recovery does not happen at all.

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