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There are tens of thousands of nerves in your body. They play a very important role, serving as the body’s wiring system. Their main task is to carry messages between the brain and the rest of the body.
While some nerves are responsible for carrying messages from the brain to the muscles in order to make the body move, there are other nerves that send messages about pain, pressure, or temperature from the body to the brain.
To help carry the messages properly, each nerve has small fibers bundled inside it, covered by an outer layer that insulates and protects them.
However, at times, nerves become damaged. An estimated 20 million Americans suffer from peripheral nerve damage, also known as neuropathy, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (1)
Causes of Nerve Damage
There are many possible causes of nerve damage. It can be due to too much pressure on a particular nerve, caused by stretching, a cut, or a muscle tear.
Other causes and contributing factors include:
- Repetitive motion
- Lyme disease
- Excessive smoking
- Excessive drinking
- Vitamin deficiencies
- Exposure to toxins
- Autoimmune disorders such as hepatitis C, diphtheria, HIV, Epstein Barr virus, rheumatoid arthritis, and Guillain-Barre syndrome (2)(3)(4)
Key Signs That Show You Might Have Nerve Damage
Here are some common signs of nerve damage.
1. Numbness in hands or feet
When it comes to sensory nerve damage, the first signs that you may develop are numbness and tingling sensations, especially in the hands, fingers, legs, and feet.
The sensory nerves are responsible for transmitting sensations. When these nerves are injured or damaged, you may experience some tingling sensations in the hands or feet that can eventually result in numbness.
If not treated, the numbness could spread to other areas of the body. The numbness usually starts out being transient and in varying patchy distributions on the skin. Over time, the problem can become severe, ultimately interfering with your daily routine or your sleep.
Some other reasons behind numbness in the hands and legs are constant pressure on your hands or feet, exposure to cold, temporary nerve compression, a sedentary lifestyle, and a nutritional deficiency of vitamin B12. (5) or magnesium. (6)
2. Pain in hands or feet
Another common sign of nerve damage is sharp, stabbing, or burning pain. This kind of pain usually develops in the hands or feet and feels different than other types of pain.
You feel the pain due to an injury to the sensory nerves that carry sensations to the brain. When the nerves are damaged, the transmission of sensory signals between the brain and the skin is not up to the mark, resulting in moderate to severe pain in the affected areas. (7)
The area of pain may be widespread (diffuse) or limited to a single nerve or several nerves. Also, this kind of pain often becomes worse at night.
A study published in Current Neuropharmacology reports that neuropathic pain quality rekindles the psychophysical experience of peripheral nerve intraneural microstimulation, i.e., a combination of large and small fiber sensation that is temporally distorted in comparison with the physiological perception evoked by natural stimuli. (8)
Aside from nerve damage, you may develop nerve pain due to diabetes, vitamin B12 deficiency, or an injury to the brain or spinal cord.
3. Muscle weakness
There are some nerves that give you the ability to move. Any kind of injury to nerves that carry motor signals causes some amount of muscle weakness and loss of muscle control.
First of all, the damage will disrupt the signals that are transmitted via the nerves between the brain and the particular muscle group. This can cause difficulty walking or problems with fine motor skills such as those needed to pick up something or grip something tightly. (9)
Second, when the affected muscle group is used less due to nerve damage, the muscles weaken (atrophy) over time. This ultimately causes more difficulty performing certain motor functions.
Aside from nerve damage, you can have muscle weakness due to myasthenia gravis, Parkinson’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, slipped discs, and even stroke.
4. Cramps or twitching
Any kind of damage to motor nerves can cause frequent muscle cramps or twitching.
Because the motor nerves are interlaced with the muscles, even minimal nerve damage can result in muscle cramps. At the same time, cramps and twitching can further pull on the nerves, potentially causing more damage. (10)
While muscle cramps are caused by the continuous firing of multiple motor nerves, twitching is caused when one or a few motor nerves misfire. (11)
Cramps or twitching associated with nerve damage can vary in severity from mild to intense and extremely painful. Muscle cramps can also occur due to over-exercising, dehydration, or a mineral deficiency.
5. Excessive or less sweating
Damage to nerves that help the organs and organ systems function can cause a condition called autonomic neuropathy. When the autonomic nerves are affected, it can result in perspiration problems. (12)
While some may experience excessive sweating, particularly in the upper body and head, others may notice less sweating, which can prevent regulation of body temperature during rigorous physical activity.
A study published in Deutsches Arzteblatt International found that sweating may be peripherally increased at the onset of polyneuropathy and may disappear as nerve damage progresses. (13)
6. Overactive bladder
When suffering from nerve damage, your bladder may become overactive and you may have to go to the bathroom a lot.
A good number of muscles and nerves must work together for the bladder to hold urine until you are ready to empty it. Nerve messages go back and forth between the brain and the muscles that control bladder emptying. (14)
When there is some kind of nerve damage, the muscles may not be able to tighten or relax at the right time. Moreover, damaged nerves can give your bladder faulty messages, so you feel like you have to use the bathroom more often. (15)(14)
Women who have given birth to a child vaginally or people who have diabetes can also have bladder problems.
It is important to note that not all bladder problems originate from nervous system defects. They can also occur from mechanical and obstructive problems. Patients are advised to seek an evaluation by a specialist physician.
7. Intense headaches
If you are experiencing brief, severe headaches that feel like electric shocks, it could be a sign of nerve damage.
In fact, you may be suffering from something called occipital neuralgia, a condition that can occur when a nerve in your neck gets pinched. This can be due to inflammation in one of the 12 cranial nerves coming from the brain that control the muscles and carry sensory signals to and from the head and neck. (16)
In this case, the pain will be felt along the upper neck and back of the head. The pain may be described as throbbing, aching, burning, or sharp and stabbing.
8. Loss of balance
Another common sign of nerve damage is the loss of balance. You must not ignore this symptom because it can make you increasingly prone to accidents and injuries by falling.
In addition, these symptoms can be caused by pressure on the spinal cord, which necessitates urgent attention. It is important to have these symptoms evaluated by a spine surgeon.
When the nerves that control sensations are damaged, it can lead to a lack of coordination between your brain signals and body movements. This failure to adequately assess the positioning of your body can lead to falls and more frequent injuries. (15)
Loss of balance can also be due to a condition like Parkinson’s disease, in which the nerve cells in your brain tend to become damaged.
Complications Related to Nerve Damage
Peripheral neuropathy can give rise to the following complications:
- Loss of sensation: Nerve damage can cause gradual numbness in certain parts of your body, such that you are unable to feel temperature changes or pain. As a result, you become more vulnerable to burns and skin trauma that the body is unable to detect at the time of its occurrence.
- Falls. Nerve damage often renders your body too weak, numb, and out of balance, which is associated with an increased incidence of falling accidents.
- Infection: People with peripheral neuropathy, particularly those with prolonged diabetes, experience reduced sensitivity in areas of the body that are susceptible to injuries such as the feet. Because they remain unaware of the pain and irritation on account of the numbness, wounds, and injuries often go untreated for a long time, paving the way for ulcers and infections. In addition, people with prolonged diabetes already have compromised wound healing ability. (18)
Expert Answers (Q&A)
Answered by Dr. Martin M. Mortazavi, MD (Neurosurgeon)
Yes, but the 2 ends of the damaged nerves grow. If the damaged gap is small they will connect but if it is too large, they cannot naturally heal and will need different surgery techniques, such as interposition grafting with other nerves to facilitate. Nerves grow better in peripheral nerve system compared to central nerve system such as the brain or spinal cord.
The nerves usually grow approximately 1 mm per month. So the prospect of recovery depends on the gap, if it is cut or a contusion, or if it is just smashed.
In certain cases, the damaged or missing part of the nerve needs to be repaired with a fresh piece of nerve transplanted into it.
The functions of the damaged nerve will disappear in the long run. Also, the 2 ends of the nerve can develop ‘close’ ends so-called neuroma, and can cause phantom pain.
Both extremes are bad for nerve conduction.
Peripheral nerve damage does not have anything to do with insomnia directly but the pain from nerve damage can prevent the patient from falling asleep.
Massaging directly does not help but sometimes nerve damage or the pain associated with nerve damage can cause muscle spasm and massage may be able to help relax the muscles.
There are two kinds of nerve damage: traumatic and non-traumatic nerve damage.
The non-traumatic include auto-immune diseases, where the nerve or the setting around it, which causes the nerve conduction to be quicker, is attacked by the body’s overactive immune system. Two known examples of this are Charcot-Marie-Tooth neuropathies and Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Also, deteriorating quality of the small arteries bringing blood to the nerves, can damage them; we normally see this in diabetes mellitus.
A herniated disk in the spine can also damage a nerve root and cause pain, weakness, and sensory deficit. Sometimes a normal vessel can pulsate on a normal nerve in the brain and cause a state called Trigeminal neuralgia. Trigeminal neuralgia causing severe lacerating pain in the face can be operated by a technique called Microvascular decompression.
Sometimes natural structures surrounding a nerve can get thicker over time and cause the so-called nerve entrapment syndrome, a known example is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. This can easily also be operated with excellent results.
Irrespective of the reason behind the nerve damage, the signs and symptoms generally develop slowly.
But sooner or later, you will experience certain symptoms that give a clear indication that you might be suffering from nerve damage. If you notice such signs or symptoms, consult your doctor right away.
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