What is Neuropathy?
Neuropathy is defined as dysfunction or disease in at least one peripheral nerve. These peripheral nerves make up a complex network connecting the brain and spinal cord to the other regions of the body e.g. the organs, skin and muscles.
Peripheral neuropathy is the condition where some of these peripheral nerves are damaged or diseased, causing the information they relay to be corrupted in some way. It is peripheral neuropathy specifically that we’ll be focusing on here.
Symptoms of Peripheral Neuropathy
Peripheral neuropathy can present in a number of different ways depending on which nerves have been damaged. The peripheral nerves can be split into three categories: sensory, motor and autonomic nerves. Damage can occur in any or all of these types of nerves, and the symptoms vary accordingly.
The symptoms of peripheral neuropathy include (but are not limited to) the following:
- Pain/numbness/tingling sensations, most commonly in the hands and feet
- Sensory loss e.g. changes to temperature sensitivity
- Lack of coordination
- Burning or shooting pains (often worse at night)
There are many more possible symptoms, but those are some of the most frequently encountered. They do not all have to be present for peripheral neuropathy to be diagnosed (see below).
Note that neuropathy is normally chronic rather than acute i.e. it usually develops slowly over a period of several weeks or months.
Causes of Peripheral Neuropathy
There are many possible causes of peripheral neuropathy, the most common of which is diabetes. Another common cause is vitamin B12 deficiency, and that’s what we’re going to focus on here.
Having said that, the two can sometimes be interlinked. Metformin is a standard medication given to patients suffering from type 2 diabetes. While metformin is a great drug from this perspective, it can also decrease B12 levels as an unfortunate side effect.
The B12 Connection
In a healthy person, the nerves are protected by a sheath made of a fatty substance called myelin. Vitamin B12 plays an extremely important role in both the synthesis and the maintenance of myelin, so B12 deficiency can cause the protective myelin sheath to deteriorate over time.
This demyelination is a serious problem, as without myelin your nerves will no longer function properly. For instance, the nerve signals that travel between your brain, spinal cord and other body parts can be disrupted, causing information to be misinterpreted or even blocked entirely.
Basically, vitamin B12 deficiency causes peripheral neuropathy, along with a whole host of other neuropsychiatric conditions. And that’s not to mention the other unrelated effects of B12 deficiency, which may include GAVE syndrome, megaloblastic anemia and many other serious illnesses.
Even mild B12 deficiency can cause serious damage to the brain and the nervous system, and this damage may be permanent if the underlying cause is not treated.
Diagnosis of Peripheral Neuropathy
If you’re concerned that you may be suffering from vitamin B12 deficiency or peripheral neuropathy, the best advice would be to see your doctor as soon as possible. If he or she agrees that it’s a possibility, they should then run a number of tests to confirm the diagnosis.
These tests may include a neurological exam, a nerve conduction velocity test, blood work and an electromyography. Don’t worry if your doctor doesn’t do all of these tests – sometimes they won’t be necessary. Trust them to know what’s best.
Treatment for Peripheral Neuropathy
The treatment obviously depends on the cause. As there are many possible causes of peripheral neuropathy, it would be ridiculous to list here all the treatments, medications and therapies available.
However, if your neuropathy is caused by a lack of vitamin B12, then the treatment is very simple: more B12. This could come in the form of B12 injections or dietary supplements. Relatively recent advances in high dose oral pills may mean that injections are no longer necessary (even in patients with impaired B12 absorption) so this is worth talking to your doctor about.
As noted above, some nerve damage may be permanent. However, if your B12 deficiency is treated quickly and effectively, there is a good chance of a complete recovery.
In the meantime, it may be wise to take extra safety precautions if you’re struggling with everyday tasks like walking, driving, cooking etc.
If your doctor recommends taking B12 supplements or you want to take some to be on the safe side, then rest assured that there are a wide range of products readily available online.
We’ve even put together a helpful list of our recommended supplements here.
If you still have any questions, be sure to ask in the comments and we’ll do our best to help you out. 🙂