Because nerve damage can have many silent symptoms, it often goes undiagnosed in the early stages. And if you’ve never experienced nerve pain before, you may not even recognize the other signs. If you're at risk of nerve damage, visiting a neurologist to check whether any discomfort you’re feeling is an underlying cause of nerve damage is crucial.
But even if you’re not usually concerned and don’t have health conditions or autoimmune disorders, it’s good to know the warning signs because nerve damage can affect anyone. Read on to find out more.
But, What is Nerve Damage?
Nerve damage is a medical condition that can occur when you have a nerve injury or health condition. For example, according to the CDC, approximately 50 percent of people with diabetes have nerve damage. This type of nerve damage is known as diabetic neuropathy. It occurs when high blood sugar levels lead to nerve injuries. While diabetic neuropathy can affect various parts of your body, it typically leads to nerve damage in your legs and feet.
Nerve damage can be challenging to diagnose in its nascent stages because some symptoms can mimic things like vitamin deficiencies. Nerve conduction tests and studies are the best way to diagnose it. Still, it’s crucial to be aware of the symptoms so you can address them before it leads to permanent damage.
Nerve damage can cause pain, numbness, tingling or burning sensations that feel like electric shocks, and weakness in the affected area. Nerve damage can lead to several side effects, including skin sores and loss of sensation, which lead to permanent issues if the underlying cause goes unaddressed.
What You Need to Know About Your Nerves
Did you know that your body has miles and miles of nerve cells? Nerves are an essential part of the body—they help us think, move, and feel. Nerves are made up of long, thin nerve cells with a core of tissue called the axon, which sends signals from the brain to the rest of your body including the heart. The myelin sheath is a layer of fat that surrounds the axon and helps to protect it.
The human body has miles and miles of nerve cells responsible for carrying messages to and from the brain. Without nerves, we would not be able to do many things that we take for granted, including talking, walking, or even breathing easily.
Nerves are also crucial in helping us process information from our senses, such as sight, sound, and touch. Without nerves, we would be living in a world of darkness, silence, and stillness. Since your nerves are so essential, it’s no surprise that being aware of the warning signs of nerve damage is vital for more than just quick pain relief.
How Does Nerve Damage Happen?
Nerve damage can occur when some form of trauma (like disease or injury) to the body injures your nerve.
There are five different sensory receptors (or nerve endings), including mechanoreceptors. There are four primary mechanoreceptors found in human skin to process touch: Merkel's disks, Meissner's corpuscles, Ruffini endings, and Pacinian corpuscles. Each type of nerve is sensitive to a different range of stimuli, and they're distributed throughout the body in different proportions.
- Merkel's disks are slowly adapting receptors responsible for detecting light touch and pressure. They are slowly adapting neurons because they keep firing as long as the stimulus is present. For instance, if you put pressure on your finger, you will continue to feel it until the pressure is no longer applied.
- Meissner's corpuscles are also rapidly adapting receptors. However, they are more sensitive to vibration and flutter. They are rapidly adapting neurons because they respond maximally to stimuli but are short in duration. Their response decreases as the stimulus remains. These are more sensitive to light touch or vibration.
- Ruffini endings are slowly adapting receptors that detect tension, stretching, and deep pressure.
- Pacinian corpuscles are the most sensitive of the four major types of mechanoreceptors; they rapidly adapt to changes in stimuli and are responsible for detecting vibration.
Different causes of damage can cause different types of nerves to cause symptoms. Because nerve damage can be so debilitating, it’s essential to be aware of the warning signs so you can seek treatment as soon as possible.
8 Warning Signs of Nerve Damage to Watch Out For
What do shooting pains down your arm, numbness in your fingers, and unexplained weakness have in common? They could all be signs of nerve damage.
Unfortunately, since nerve damage can present a wide range of symptoms and can have many causes, it can often be challenging to diagnose. However, knowing the warning signs is an essential step in getting the treatment you need. Some treatments for nerve damage will include topical creams, acupuncture, and medicated patches to relieve neuropathic pain.
Other cases require medication like gabapentin and physical therapy. But it will all depend on the extent of the nerve damage and what further damage it may be doing to different parts of your body.
Nerve damage can impact everything from your heart rate to your metabolic health. So, it's best to consult a doctor or neurologist if you have any of these symptoms:
Nerves are responsible for sending and receiving messages throughout the body. When they are damaged, it can lead to problems with movement, sensation, and organ function. One of the first symptoms of nerve damage can be sensitivity, which manifests as sharp, lightning-like pain, burning and throbbing pain, or stabbing pain.
Sensitivity is one common symptom of nerve damage that can occur when your nerves cannot send or relay messages accurately. While sensitivity can affect any part of your body, it typically affects your hands and feet. It's because the longest nerves (found in your extremities) are usually the first to be affected. Other symptoms, like pain, tingling, or numbness, will often accompany sensitivity.
Chances are you've experienced some numbness in your life, so this is not always a cause for concern. You may have been clapping too hard at a concert or had pins and needles from sleeping on your arm. But numbness is typically always a sign of compression or irritation of the nerves. So if it happens too often, it can signal nerve damage.
It can result from an injury, an illness, or even prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. When your nerves are damaged, they can no longer send signals correctly to your brain, leading to a loss of sensation in the affected area. In some cases, the numbness may only be temporary. But if the damage is severe, it can lead to permanent numbness.
3) Tingling or Prickling
Doctors often use words like tingling or prickling to describe the sensation caused by nerve damage. It can feel like pins and needles, a burning feeling, or an electric shock. While the cause of this symptom can vary, it’s always a good idea to seek medical attention if it persists.
Tingling is a sign of nerve damage, but it’s also a sign that your nerves are healing, making this an extra confusing symptom. Sometimes, the tingling and prickling will mean that your body is in a state of repair. For example, you expect to feel some pain when you cut your finger because your nerve endings have been damaged.
Your nervous system is constantly regenerating nerve cells, a process that starts as soon as the damage is done. And it's not just cuts and bruises that can trigger nerve regeneration. While this can cause discomfort, the sensations are a good thing—it means your nerves are on the mend.
Burning is another common symptom of nerve damage. Depending on the severity of your nerve injury or condition, some treatments can reduce or alleviate the burning sensation.
Sciatica, a type of nerve damage, is a condition that most commonly causes this burning sensation in your legs. The pain is caused by damage to the sciatic nerve. This nerve runs from the lower back down through each leg. When it’s damaged, it can cause numbness, tingling, and burning sensations. While various things can cause sciatica, some common causes include herniated disks, spinal stenosis, and piriformis syndrome.
5) Problems with Positional Awareness
Did you know that nerve damage can cause problems with your positional awareness? It can cause a wide range of symptoms, including movement, balance, and coordination issues. It can also make it difficult for people to walk or move around without losing balance.
While positional awareness is usually temporary after an injury, it can be a permanent symptom of nerve damage in some cases. It can lead to several safety concerns and problems with day-to-day activities.
6) Muscle Weakness
Many people suffer from nerve damage for years without realizing it because the symptoms can be very subtle and easy to dismiss. Sometimes, your nerves regenerate and heal on their own, but this is not always the case.
Muscle weakness is often one of the earliest and most noticeable nerve damage symptoms that require medical intervention. It can significantly impact a person's quality of life if left untreated.
When the nerves are damaged, they can't send the signals they usually send to your muscles to tell them what to do. This leads to muscle weakness and problems with movement you may experience as an initial symptom of the damage or injury. Muscle weakness due to nerve damage is most often in your arms and legs.
Hyperhidrosis is characterized by excessive sweating and can occur due to various health conditions, including nerve damage. It's one of the most ignored and most common symptoms of nerve damage. If you're sweating more than usual, feel extreme discomfort from it, and can't seem to control it, you may have hyperhidrosis.
8) Heat Intolerance
Nerve damage can also interfere with the body's ability to regulate temperature, leading to heat intolerance. When your nerves are damaged, they may be unable to send signals to the sweat glands, which help to cool your body down.
Nerve damage can also disrupt blood flow, making it difficult for the body to regulate its temperature. In addition, nerve damage can cause your muscles to tense up, making it harder for the body to cool down. As a result, people with nerve damage may find it difficult to tolerate even moderate temperatures.
On the flip side, some nerve damage can cause cold intolerance, which is not just a sensitivity to cold temperatures but can be debilitating for those affected by it.
A Note on Peripheral Neuropathy
Peripheral neuropathy is a condition that affects the nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord. The peripheral nervous system is composed of a system of 43 pairs of motor and sensory nerves. They connect your brain and spinal cord (AKA your central nervous system) to the rest of your body.
Health conditions and injuries to this system can cause numbness, tingling, pain, and other problems in the hands and feet. The symptoms of peripheral neuropathy can come on gradually or suddenly, vary from person to person, and can worsen over time.
Peripheral neuropathy is a common complication associated with diabetes, which can cause damage to the nerves in the hands and feet. Approximately 60 to 70 percent of people with diabetes suffer from this type of nerve damage, leading to problems regulating blood glucose levels.
When the nerves are damaged, they can't send signals to the brain telling it how much sugar is in the blood. Elevated blood glucose can also lead to nerve problems, so those with blood glucose complications have to be more careful.
While peripheral neuropathy most commonly affects those with diabetes, it can also occur due to other underlying conditions. These include tumors, bone marrow disorders, spinal stenosis, cancer, or alcohol abuse. There’s no definitive treatment, although addressing the underlying cause can be helpful. Some people with peripheral neuropathy find relief with medication, physical therapy, and lifestyle changes to alleviate symptoms.
Are you interested in knowing more about the condition? Stay tuned for our next installment to learn more about peripheral neuropathy and how it impacts blood glucose.
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Katie is a dietitian at Nutrisense. With over 11 years of experience as a dietitian in many areas of nutrition, Katie has worked as a clinical dietitian within a hospital, as well as in the fields of diabetes, sports and performance nutrition, recovery from addiction, and general wellness. She’s also an athlete and has run 8 marathons, including the Boston Marathon.