Demyelinating neuropathy is disease of the nerves that causes destruction of the myelin sheath. The myelin sheath is a layer of fatty tissue that protects the nerves and makes nerve impulses travel quickly and efficiently. Without the myelin sheath, nerve impulses would not be able to reach parts of the body fully intact. This would cause loss of sensation or control of the body part in question. The demyelinated nerves would eventually wither from disuse if the problem is not treated.
The causes of demyelinating neuropathy are largely unknown and not well understood. The condition is thought to be autoimmune. An autoimmune disorder is a condition in which the immune system incorrectly attacks parts of the body as if they were foreign to the body.
Symptoms of demyelinating neuropathy depend on the location of the myelin sheath that is under attack. Numbness, burning and tingling of the hands or feet are among the most common symptoms. Sudden back or neck pain might occur. The sufferer might also experience loss of reflexes or involuntary muscle twitching.
Demyelinating neuropathy can also attack nerves that supply the heart and other involuntary systems. This is called autonomic neuropathy. Besides heart problems, the patient might have trouble with his or her bladder or bowels. Another common symptom is dizziness when changing between lying, sitting and standing positions.
Treatments for demyelinating neuropathy concentrate primarily on trying to stop the immune system from attacking the myelin sheath. There is no way to tell the immune system what not to attack, so the immune system has to be suppressed as a whole using drugs called immunosuppressants. Suppression of the immune system is often accompanied by a procedure called plasmapheresis. The blood is taken out of the body in small amounts to remove the immune cells attacking the myelin sheath, and then the healthy blood is put back into the body. The immune suppressants are used to keep the body from producing more of the harmful cells.
Another name for demyelinating neuropathy is chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy. Corticosteroids are also effective in treating demyelinating neuropathy because they treat the inflammation associated with the condition. An example of a corticosteroid is prednisolone.
The primary tissue that makes up the myelin sheath is called sphingomyelin or basic myelin protein. Some believe that it is better to treat demyelinating neuropathy by simply replacing the myelin sheath that is being destroyed. This is done by taking a nutritional supplement made of basic myelin protein from animals such as cattle.