What are nerve conditions?
The nervous system consists of two anatomic parts. The central nervous system includes the brain and spinal cord. The peripheral nervous system transmits sensory information between the muscles, tissues and nerves in the rest of the body to the brain. When any of these connections are disrupted, nerve symptoms occur.
Nerve conditions often originate in the peripheral nervous system and can manifest with burning, numbness, pins-and-needles sensations, muscle weakness or paralysis, and sensitivity. These symptoms may be caused by a local injury, in which the pain can be directly related to a trauma, or a systemic illness that affects your entire body. In referred pain, a more complex condition, the sensation of pain is felt in a different part of your body than where the injury or illness actually occurred. Referred pain is the most difficult to diagnose and treat.
Nerve conditions can arise from one nerve or many. Some syndromes occur when the nerve is compressed and deprived of proper blood flow. For example, carpal tunnel syndrome may develop from repetitive wrist or hand motions. Diabetes is a common cause of peripheral neuropathies (nerve disorders), the result of nerve damage from high blood sugar. Nerve symptoms can also stem from autoimmune diseases such as lupus erythematosus or Guillain-Barré syndrome or viruses such as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), Epstein-Barr, or varicella-zoster.
Nerve conditions due to a malfunctioning of the autonomic nervous system (part of the peripheral nervous system) may interrupt involuntary actions such as breathing, swallowing, bladder control, or perspiration. They may be accompanied by symptoms of low blood pressure such as dizziness or vertigo, or loss of consciousness. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these symptoms, as they can be life threatening.
What are the symptoms of nerve conditions?
The symptoms of nerve conditions are diverse because the nervous system governs or participates in a number of functions as well as body systems, including control of body temperature, blood pressure, muscles, digestion and appetite, movement, and sight.
Common symptoms of nerve conditions
The symptoms of nerve conditions are diverse and can include the following:
Altered smell or taste
Confusion or cognitive changes
Loss of balance
Loss of consciousness
Loss of muscle coordination
Pain from an origin that does not usually cause pain or that follows the course of a specific nerve
Paralysis or inability to move a body part
Pins-and-needles (prickling) sensation
Gastrointestinal symptoms that may occur along with nerve symptoms
Nerve conditions may accompany symptoms related to other body systems, such as the digestive system including:
- Difficulty chewing
- Digestive problems
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
- Nausea with or without vomiting
Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition
In some cases, nerve symptoms may be life threatening and should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:
Abnormal pupil size or nonreactivity to light
Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness
Dizziness or vertigo
Garbled or slurred speech or inability to speak
Loss of muscle coordination
Sudden paralysis or inability to move a body part
What causes nerve conditions?
The causes of nerve conditions are as diverse as the nervous system itself. A common origin for nerve symptoms is the peripheral nervous system, which transmits sensory signals from the rest of the body to the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord).
Nerve conditions can arise from one nerve or many. Some syndromes occur when a nerve is compressed and deprived of proper blood flow. For example, carpal tunnel syndrome may occur from repetitive wrist or hand motions. Diabetes is a common cause of neuropathies (nerve disorders), the result of nerve damage from high blood sugar. Nerve conditions can stem from autoimmune diseases, such as lupus or Guillain-Barré syndrome, or from an infection with viruses such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or Epstein-Barr virus.
Some viruses can remain dormant in your nerve cells and recur over many years. For example, the varicella-zoster virus that causes chickenpox can, much later in life, produce painful nerve conditions, such as shingles and postherpetic neuralgia.
Infectious causes of nerve conditions
Some infections can result in damage to the nerves or nerve conditions including:
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
Other bacterial and viral infections of the brain or meninges (membranes lining the brain and spinal cord)
Chronic disease causes of nerve conditions
Chronic disease can affect the nerves as well as other body systems. Examples of chronic diseases that can cause nerve conditions include:
Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (inherited disorder affecting the peripheral nerves)
Complex regional pain syndromes
Diabetes (a chronic disease that affects your body’s ability to use sugar for energy)
Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
Systemic lupus erythematosus (a disorder in which the body attacks its own healthy cells and tissues)
Other causes of nerve conditions
Other causes of nerve conditions include:
Dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease
Guillain-Barré syndrome (autoimmune nerve disorder)
Medication side effects
Nutritional deficiencies, especially of thiamine, niacin, and vitamins E, B1, B6, or B12
Prolonged exposure to toxins such as lead, mercury, and other metals
Serious or life-threatening causes of nerve conditions
Nerve conditions can also be due to serious or even potentially life-threatening causes including:
Brain or spinal cord tumors
Transient ischemic attack (temporary stroke-like symptoms that may be a warning sign of an impending stroke)
A number of factors increase the risk of developing nerve conditions. Not all people with risk factors will get nerve conditions. Risk factors for nerve conditions vary according to the type of condition. Some risk factors for nerve damage include:
- Alcohol or illicit substance abuse
- Family history of degenerative neurologic conditions
- High blood pressure
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Repeated physical motion or stress
How are nerve conditions treated?
Treatment for nerve conditions begins when you seek medical care from your health care provider. The cause, duration and severity of your nerve condition will determine the appropriate treatment. The goals of therapy are to manage the symptoms, including pain, and to treat the underlying condition, if possible. Therapies include medication, surgery, and injections of local anesthetics, as well as complementary treatments such as biofeedback, acupuncture and massage.
Medications for nerve conditions
Analgesics, such as codeine, fentanyl (Duragesic, Fentora, Actiq) and oxycontin (OxyContin, Roxicodone)
Anticonvulsants such as gabapentin (Neurontin, Gabarone)
Antidepressants, particularly tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline (Elavil)
Antiviral medications to reduce recurrence of postherpetic neuralgia
Local anesthetics or topical nerve blocks
Other treatments for nerve conditions
Control of high blood sugar (to prevent neuropathy for people with diabetes)
Injection of local anesthetics
Injection of nerve blocks
Motor cortex stimulation
Surgery to block the nerve sensations causing pain
Surgery to remove tumors or other obstructions on the nerve
Some complementary treatments may help some people better deal with nerve conditions. These treatments, sometimes referred to as alternative therapies, are used in conjunction with traditional medical treatments. Complementary treatments are not meant to substitute for traditional medical care. Be sure to notify your doctor if you are consuming nutritional supplements or homeopathic (nonprescription) remedies as they may interact with the prescribed medical therapy.
Complementary treatments may include:
Nutritional dietary supplements, herbal remedies, tea beverages, and similar products
Because nerve conditions can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce your risk of potential complications including: