Published on March 01, 2017

Numbness in your Feet or Legs Could Signal Trouble

Peripheral neuropathy is the medical term for any sort of disease of the nervous system in the arms or legs. An estimated 20 million Americans now have some form of the condition, which occurs as a result of any sort of damage to the peripheral nervous system. The most common cause of the condition in the U.S. is diabetes and other conditions related to high blood sugar. As the incidence of diabetes increases, so too will the incidence of complications from that disease. Symptoms can range from a feeling of numbness and tingling, to the most extreme cases that can cause respiratory or organ failure. If you or a loved one is at risk for neuropathy, here’s what you need to know.

“Peripheral nerves send sensory information back to the brain and spinal cord, such as a message that the feet are cold,” said Andrew Berta, M.D., family medicine. “Damage to the peripheral nervous system interferes with these critical connections, almost like static on a telephone line.”

In diabetic neuropathy, nerve damage occurs in an ascending pattern. The first nerves to malfunction are the ones that travel the furthest from the brain. Pain and numbness are typically felt first in both feet, followed be a gradual progression up the legs. Later, the fingers, hands and arms may become affected. Symptoms are often worse at night.

In addition to pain and numbness, other symptoms of peripheral neuropathy may include:

  • Reduced ability to feel pain or temperature changes
  • Tingling or burning sensations
  • Sharp pains or cramps
  • Increased sensitivity to touch
  • Muscle weakness
  • Loss of reflexes, especially in the ankle
  • Loss of balance and coordination
  • Serious foot problems, such as ulcers, infections, deformities, and joint pain

While diabetes is the most common risk factor for peripheral neuropathy, the condition can also be caused by physical trauma, kidney disorders, alcohol abuse, autoimmune diseases, and certain infections or cancers.

“The pain associated with nerve damage is often difficult to control,” says Dr. Berta. "Effective treatment that gives the patient relief from symptoms depends heavily on identifying and treating the underlying cause. The earlier the patient seeks advice and treatment, the better chance we have to manage or reverse the condition.”

In addition to a thorough physical exam, lifestyle review and lab tests, your physician may rely on a variety of test to determine the type and extent of neuropathy, including:

  • Nerve conduction velocity (NCV) – an electrical probe that measures how well large nerve fibers conduct impulses.
  • Electromyography (EMG) – a fine needle is inserted into a muscle to record electrical activity when muscles are contracted vs. at rest;
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – digital imaging that shows muscle quality and size, and can rule out tumors and disc damage that may be causing the symptoms;
  • Nerve biopsy – a more invasive procedure that involves removing and examining a sample of nerve tissue;
  • Skin biopsy – a less-invasive procedure that involves removing a thin skin sample and examining nerve fiber endings.

Treatment of peripheral neuropathy is focused on managing the underlying condition causing the neuropathy and relieving symptoms to help patients maintain their quality of life. Addressing the underlying condition is the most effective way to manage or reverse the condition. And there is exciting and emerging research around the use of certain medications to prevent, or even reverse, symptoms of peripheral neuropathy.

Most importantly, don’t ignore pain or numb feelings in your feet or legs, especially if you are diabetic. Early diagnosis is the key to reducing the impact of neuropathy on your life. If you need assistance in diagnosing or managing foot or leg problems, visit MYCHESTNUTHILLDOC.COM. Dr. Berta is accepting new patients at Chestnut Hill Family Practice located adjacent to the Hospital.

Chestnut Hill Hospital (CHH) is a community-based, university-affiliated, teaching hospital committed to excellent patient-centered care. CHH provides a full range of inpatient and outpatient, diagnostic and treatment services for our neighbors in northwest Philadelphia and eastern Montgomery County. More than 300 board-certified physicians comprise the medical staff and support medical specialties including minimally invasive laparoscopic and robotic surgery, cardiology, gynecology, oncology, orthopedics, urology, family practice and internal medicine. Our comprehensive services include primary care practices, two women’s centers and an off-site physical therapy center. CHH is affiliated with university-hospitals in Philadelphia for heart and stroke care, as well as our hospitalist and residency programs. Chestnut Hill has 130-beds and is accredited by the Joint Commission. To learn more about CHH, visit CHESTNUTHILLHEALTH.COM.