Peripheral neuropathy is a condition that involves damage to the nerves and can inhibit healthy wound healing.

People living with diabetes must deal with a wide variety of complications, from a higher risk of glaucoma to poor wound healing. Many also suffer from peripheral neuropathy, a condition that affects the way the nerves communicate with the brain and that can further exasperate diabetics’ capacity to recover from a wound. Learn more about this disorder, how it affects wound healing and advancements in medical science that can help people cope with the condition.

What is peripheral neuropathy?

According to the National Institutes of Health, this condition involves damage or disease that inhibits function of the nerves. It develops due to damage to the peripheral nervous system, the system of communication within the body that transmits information from every part of the body to the brain and spinal cord. It’s what tells the central nervous system that you’re experiencing pain and other sensations. It can also inhibit muscle movement and, in severe cases, cause debilitating pain. The symptoms of this condition generally include:

  • A numbness or tingling of the feet or hands that gradually worsens and may spread to the legs and arms
  • Heightened sensitivity to touch
  • Sharp pain or a sensation of burning
  • Muscle weakness or paralysis
  • Lack of coordination that can lead to falls and potentially injury

In severe cases, neuropathy can cause damage of the autonomic nerves. This may lead to more intense symptoms, such as digestive issues, heat intolerance, excessive sweating and sudden changes in blood pressure that cause lightheadedness or dizziness.

The devastating effects of diabetic neuropathy

As the NIH reported, peripheral neuropathy affects an estimated 20 million Americans. It’s particularly common among the elderly population. It also occurs in high rates in people with diabetes, and diabetic neuropathy is one of the most common forms of this disorder.

In those with this metabolic condition, nerve damage tends to lead to a loss of sensation in the feet, and the numbness rises to the legs and sometimes the hands and arms. The lack of sensation is a major problem that has led to a high rate of amputations – when a diabetic experiences a wound on the lower extremities, he or she may have trouble feeling it. This can lead to delayed wound care and untreated infection that, if it turns gangrenous, may need to be amputated to stop the spread.

Treating peripheral neuropathy

There is no cure for peripheral neuropathy, and the treatment options are nominal at best. Detecting the condition early is key to finding relief from the pain and increasing sensation in the limbs, which could potentially reduce the risk of amputation. In the past, clinicians have largely relied on patients’ reports of numbness and pain to diagnose peripheral neuropathy; however, researchers have recently come across a new method for detecting his form of nerve damage.

A study published in the January 2015 issue of Diabetes Care revealed that a specific eye scan – corneal confocal microscopy – predicts peripheral neuropathy among people with Type 1 diabetes. The scan involves a high-magnification examination of the unmyelinated nerve fibers with a laser-scanning microscope. The microscope creates an image of the corneal subbasal nerve plexus, allowing a view of the corneal-nerve fiber. When this fiber shows reduced length coupled with reduced corneal sensitivity, it signifies that the patient may have peripheral neuropathy.

This advancement may lead to patient awareness of the condition, leading him or her to take special care of the feet to look out for cuts and abrasions as well as signs of wound infection.

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