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Peripheral Neuropathy (Nerve Disease) in the Elderly


Peripheral Neuropathy (Nerve Disease) in the ElderlyPeripheral neuropathy is any disease of the nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord. It causes the most marked symptoms ranging from pain to numbness in the extremities – arms and legs. Although peripheral neuropathy is caused by a number of different diseases, one of the most common causes is diabetes mellitus (sugar diabetes). Peripheral neuropathy develops as a complication after long term diabetes and is therefore more frequently seen in older diabetics. However, there are various other causes of peripheral neuropathy which also need to be considered.

Causes of Peripheral Neuropathy

Nerves are the body’s ‘electrical wiring’ system – signals travel throughout the body via the nerves. Those nerves that are located outside of the brain and spinal cord are known as peripheral nerves. It carries sensations from the body to the brain and signals for controlling muscles from the brain to the different parts of the body.

The nerves may be damaged or diseased in the following ways.

  • Autoimmune factors where the body’s immune system attacks the nerves and causes it to become inflamed.
  • Alcohol and toxins which irritate and damage the nerves directly.
  • Compression of the nerve.
  • Chronic diseases like diabetes mellitus and kidney failure where nerve damage arises due to the high levels of glucose or urea respectively.
  • Infections where certain viruses and bacteria irritate or damage the nerves.
  • Trauma (injury) to the nerve.
  • Tumors of the nerve lining or cancers in other organs that disrupt nerve function.
  • Vitamin deficiencies where certain essential vitamins for nerve function is not available in sufficient quantities.
  • Other diseases such as liver disease or an underactive thyroid gland.

Symptoms of Peripheral Neuropathy

Symptoms can vary depending on which type of nerve is affected.

  • Afferent nerves carry signals from different parts to the brain – sensory nerves.
  • Efferent nerves carry signals from the brain and spinal cord to different parts of the body – motor nerves.
  • Mixed nerves which carry both sensory and motor signals.

When the sensory (afferent) nerves are affected then a person may experience :

  • Burning and pain.
  • Tingling and “pins and needles”
  • Numbness

If the motor (efferent) nerves are damaged or diseased then a person may notice :

  • Muscle weakness
  • Paralysis

Some nerves carry signals to muscles that cannot be controlled voluntary (autonomic nerves). These nerves and muscles may be responsible for :

  • Bladder function
  • Bowel movements
  • Blood pressure
  • Heart rate
  • Digestion

Therefore these functions in the body are affected and there will be related symptoms present.

In the elderly the symptoms of these diseased or damaged nerves can further compound existing age-related problems with sensation, muscle strength and movement, bladder and bowel function, digestion and blood pressure.


The key to treating peripheral neuropathy is to identify the underlying cause and treat it accordingly. Most of the symptoms will improve and even resolve if the nerve damage is not permanent. The pain can be relieved and managed over the long term with various types of medication but this is not a permanent cure.

Sometimes treatment with electrical current can improve the symptoms of peripheral neuropathy. This type of treatment is known as transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). As with medication for pain relief, it only offers temporary relief of symptoms.

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