Neuropathy, also known as peripheral neuropathy, refers to nerve damage that can cause pain, numbness, tingling, and other symptoms. While neuropathy affects millions of Americans, adults over 65 years old are particularly vulnerable. There is not a cure for neuropathy, but there are treatments and lifestyle changes that can help manage neuropathic pain. Learn more about neuropathy and how aging loved ones can manage their symptoms.
Neuropathy includes conditions that disrupt communication between the central nervous system (your brain and spinal cord) and nerves throughout the body. Remember that nerves carry electrical signals, which are interpreted as smells, balance, sight, taste, pain, temperature, movement, and more. When nerves are damaged, these signals are interrupted, resulting in pain, numbness, or other sensations.
Neuropathy can affect any part of the body. It typically affects extremities, like the arms, hands, legs, and feet. That's because the nerves are the furthest from the central nervous system. Neuropathy can also affect multiple areas of the body, depending on the extent of nerve damage.
Neuropathy can affect each individual differently. Below are some of the most common symptoms seniors with neuropathy experience:
- Decreased reflexes
- Muscle cramps
- Loss of muscle mass
- Balance issues
If you or an aging loved one notices signs of neuropathy, seek treatment as soon as possible. Many times, nerve damage leaves lasting effects. But getting treatment early can help limit the progression of nerve damage.
Nerve damage resulting in neuropathy can be caused by a number of different conditions. For some individuals, the underlying cause of neuropathy may remain unknown.
Here are some of the most common causes of neuropathy in older adults.
- Physical injury
- Exposure to toxins
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Vitamin and nutrient deficiencies
- Autoimmune and inflammatory conditions, like arthritis
- Nerve diseases
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To diagnose peripheral neuropathy, a doctor will review your medical history and do a physical exam. They will look for signs of neuropathy during your appointment, including changes to your reflexes or muscle weakness.
Doctors may also order other tests, like an electromyography (EMG), nerve ultrasound, or blood work to confirm the diagnosis. And they may order imaging, like x-rays, MRIs, or CT scans to look for underlying causes of the neuropathy.
Treatment for Neuropathy
While neuropathy cannot be cured or reversed, the symptoms can be managed effectively. Treatments can help limit or stop the progression of nerve damage. In some cases, nerves can be repaired and regenerate. However, the treatment and outlook depends on the underlying cause of neuropathy.
Below are some of the neuropathy treatments available.
- Medication: Many medications can help manage pain, reduce inflammation, and control symptoms.
- Physical therapy: Physical therapy or occupational therapy can help strengthen muscles and improve coordination, helping to prevent dangerous falls.
- Surgery: Some seniors may benefit from surgery to repair damaged nerves or address the underlying cause of pain. Sometimes, doctors may want to remove or sever damaged nerves.
- Foot care: Neuropathy can change the soft tissue and bone in the feet. And numbness in the feet can make it harder to notice sores, infections and ulcers. So, getting treatment from a podiatrist can help manage foot health.
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Tips for Managing Neuropathic Pain
Living with neuropathy can be difficult. In addition to medical treatments, there are lifestyle changes that seniors can make to improve their symptoms and manage neuropathy.
- Eat healthy foods: Just like muscles, your nerves need the right balance of nutrients to remain healthy. Keep any dietary restrictions in mind. For example, seniors with diabetes should eat foods that help support healthy blood glucose levels.
- Stay hydrated: When your body doesn't have enough water, the communication between nerves can become disrupted. Plus, drinking water helps your other organs stay healthy.
- Exercise regularly: Maintaining a healthy weight can help you manage chronic conditions causing neuropathy, like diabetes. Additionally, exercise can help boost your mental health.
- Get enough rest: Neuropathy can make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. However, it's important to get as much quality sleep as possible. Fatigue can make neuropathy symptoms worse.
- Avoid alcohol and smoking: Excessive alcohol consumption and smoking are both linked to neuropathy. You can try to minimize symptoms by cutting out or reducing alcohol and smoking.
- Wear supportive shoes: If neuropathic pain affects your feet, try getting better shoes. Shoes should offer a generous toe box and plenty of support. Closed-toed shoes are best to help protect your toes from damage if you experience numbness.
- Use assistive devices: Injuries are a common source of neuropathic pain. Use assistive devices, like a cane, to help with daily tasks and avoid further injuries.
- Manage underlying conditions: Older adults should work with their doctor to manage chronic health conditions contributing to their symptoms.
- Hire an aid: Caregivers can help seniors with neuropathy remain independent at home and stay on track with their treatment plan.
- Talk to a therapist: Living with chronic conditions can take a toll on your mental health. Talk with a therapist to discover coping mechanisms to help with the loss of independence or chronic symptoms.
Neuropathy can be a painful condition, interfering with activities of daily living. But with proper medical care and lifestyle changes, it can be managed effectively. With the right treatment plan and lifestyle adjustments, seniors with neuropathy can live happily and safely at home.