Your nervous system is a massive communications network for the body, carrying instructions from the brain and reporting and responding to sensations like touch, heat, sound, and light. But like any biological system, nerves are far from indestructible. A wide variety of internal and external threats can disrupt, damage, and degenerate nerve tissue, and in many cases the nerves of your feet and ankles are the first to feel the strain.
Symptoms of Peripheral Neuropathy
Nerve damage in the extremities is known as peripheral neuropathy, and symptoms can vary widely depending on the location and nature of the nerve or nerves that are affected:
- Sensory problems. The most common sign of neuropathy is unusual sensory problems in the feet and legs. For some it may be a tingling or pins-and-needles feeling; for others there may be sharp, jabbing, or throbbing pain. Severe nerve damage results in total numbness in the feet.
- Muscle problems. Motor nerves control voluntary muscle movement. If they are damaged, it may cause significant weakness, or even paralysis, in the muscles that control the toes, feet, and legs. Coordination and balance will also be affected.
- Autonomic function problems. Autonomic nerves help regulate internal organs and systems that function automatically—digestion, bladder control, heat tolerance, blood pressure, etc. Damage to autonomic nerves can affect these systems as well.
Nerve pain in feet is especially dangerous because it can cause you to miss injuries like cuts, bruises, or even broken bones—simply because you can’t feel them. For those with diabetes or other issues with circulation or immune system function, this greatly increases your risk of developing infected ulcers and wounds. Without prompt care, these can become so serious that an amputation is the only solution.
How Nerves Are Damaged
By far, the No. 1 underlying cause of peripheral neuropathy in American adults is diabetes, which accounts for about 80% of all cases. Too much sugar in the bloodstream is poisonous for nerves, so the longer you have diabetes—and the more you struggle to keep your sugar in check—the more likely you are to develop neuropathy.
Other possible causes include:
- Alcohol abuse
- Poor nutrition
- Injuries or direct pressure on peripheral nerves
- Certain medications
- Exposure to toxins
- A number of diseases and disorders, including kidney and liver disease, certain cancers, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjogren’s syndrome, lupus, and others.
Relieving Pain and Restoring Function
At Southern California Foot & Ankle Specialists, we stress the importance of early intervention whenever peripheral neuropathy is suspected. Unfortunately, nerve damage can be difficult to manage and is not always fully reversible. By being proactive and taking control of your condition—before it controls you—you can mitigate your discomfort and avoid the more serious potential complications.
Treatments are tailored to meet the individual needs of each patient. They may include:
- Healthy living. Stop if you’ve heard this one: exercise, eat right, and quit smoking. Taking care of your personal health will not only help relieve neuropathy pain, but can also help the condition from getting worse.
- Manage your diabetes. If you’re one of the millions of Americans with diabetes, keeping your blood glucose under control is critical to preventing and/or slowing the progression of nerve damage.
- A wide range of medical remedies, including drugs originally developed to treat other conditions (such as anti-seizure meds and antidepressants) have shown effectiveness in relieving neuropathy pain.
- Physical therapy. Stretches and exercises can help ease pain, as well as strengthen and retrain muscles that may be affected by motor neuropathy.
- When nerve damage is caused by a physical blockage, surgery to decompress the nerve may be your best option.
If you’ve noticed any strange or concerning sensations or symptoms in your toes, feet, or ankles, please stop in as soon as you can for testing and treatment options. You can request an appointment online, or give our Ladera Ranch, CA podiatry office a call at (949) 364-9255.