Love it or hate it, we live in a social media world where it’s easier than ever to be connected to each other. This actually is a lot like the nervous system in your body. You may use social media platforms to stay connected with family and friends—or (shameless plug coming in 3…2…1…) follow your favorite go-to foot doc on Facebook—your body relies on a network of nerves to communicate information.
When everything is functioning as intended, it’s a lot like receiving a notification about an upcoming party you’re actually looking forward to. On the other hand, nerve damage (neuropathy) causes problems that are akin to receiving unwanted text messages from people you don’t know or spam/phishing emails from Russia. If I told you that my left fingers felt like they were on fire, but I was missing my left arm, you would be skeptical. But damaged nerves can create their own signals or messages that can range from weakness to shooting, burning, stabbing, or crushing pain. This is typical of end-stage neuropathy, but the beginning stage may be limited to a decrease or loss of sensation – like if your smartphone is in silent mode and you miss a dozen important calls!
Your Personal Information Superhighway
So your nervous system is a smartphone, the internet, and Facebook wrapped up all in one. It is responsible for transmitting information across your body. Some of the peripheral nerves are used to collect and convey information about temperature, pain, motion, and fine point sensation back to the central nervous system (your spinal column and brain).
It is worth noting that there are actually three types of peripheral nerves. The ones we just referenced are your sensory nerves, but there are also motor and automatic peripheral nerves as well. Your motor nerves enable voluntary movement. When you click “follow” on our Facebook page (as a completely random example), you are using motor nerves. Automatic nerves are the ones that maintain your skin temperature, keep your heart beating, and chest cavity expanding and collapsing (so you can take in air, which is kind of important).
What We Have Here is Failure to Communicate
Healthy nerves that function properly is an unlimited data plan with virus protection so no unwanted spam or robocalls get through. Peripheral neuropathy is like finding yourself included in a wrong number group text message that will not end. No matter how many times you reply “Listen, I do not want to join your cult. Please take me off this group text!”, you will still find yourself hearing about the generosity of the beloved Leader.
With regard to how neuropathy affects your body, the nerves will send mystery messages to the brain that give the sensation of burning, tingling, freezing, or sharp, jabbing pain (when there is no rational reason to do so). In some cases, the problem isn’t that you are receiving the wrong messages – it’s that you aren’t receiving any messages at all!
Numbness caused by neuropathy means that your brain doesn’t receive the message that your foot has been damaged. Sometimes, feeling sensation is restored—like spotty wi-fi—after extensive damage has taken place. This is how the “Gift of Pain” protects you and why it is so dangerous when the gift is lost.
Imagine, for example, walking on a broken bone or burst blister all day without even being aware of it. Cuts and scrapes can turn into ugly, infected ulcers if you have neuropathy and aren’t careful.
Why Communication Gaps Happen
If you have difficulty communicating in the modern world, it might be due to your dedication to your 10-year old flip phone. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that – Dr. Leibovitz still has one!)
When feet have difficulty communicating to your brain, potential explanations include:
- Diabetes. High and fluctuating levels of blood sugar poison the nerves over a long period of time. More than half of diabetes sufferers develop neuropathy.
- Alcohol or drug abuse. In part, this may be attributed to poor dietary habits from those afflicted with addiction.
- Dietary choices. A diet that is very narrow and limiting may not provide enough key vitamins. That can cause nerves to swell or starve from lack of nutrition.
- Trauma or injury. This includes overuse from repetitive motions associated with certain jobs or hobbies.
- A wide variety of illnesses, infections, or disorders. Lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, bone marrow problems, kidney disease, liver disease, hypothyroidism, and certain cancers are some of the heath issues that can lead to nerve damage.
- Medications. Certain chemotherapy medicines that target cancer cells can also affect nerves.
- Smoking (and other nicotine use). Nicotine shuts the smallest blood vessels (vaso vasorium) down, and these are the ones that supply nerves. You can think of this as trying to water flowers with a crimped hose. (And you thought breathing was the biggest concern with smoking!) Vaping and patches aren’t better options, since they also deliver nicotine into your bloodstream.
- Idiopathic. Sometimes the change in sensation can be confirmed but there is no identifiable source that can be connected to it.
Solving Communication Problems is Always the Right Move
When it comes to treatment for nerve damage, our goals for you are centered on two things – fix and protect. First, we find the source of the issue (diabetes, nutrition, injury, etc.) and do what we can to manage or fix it. Then, we take protective measures to relieve symptoms and prevent continued damage, as much as possible.
For example, if your neuropathy is linked to diabetes, the best things to do are manage your sugar levels and protect your feet. If repetitive motion is the issue, you may need to either modify the activity or biomechanics. When diet is the issue, make sure you get plenty of B vitamins, niacin, and other key nutrients.
Our office can help you with the management of many of these problems. We may employ oral treatments and supplements that help mitigate troublesome symptoms and keep your nerves working as well as possible. We have impressive results from an over-the-counter (OTC) product that provides additional building blocks for nerve repair. As of April 2016, food products that were previously only available by prescription are now available OTC.
As a last resort, a variety of prescription medications—including those developed for other conditions (such as anti-depressants or seizure meds)—have proven effective in masking neuropathic pain.
Unfortunately, the longer a nerve has been damaged, the longer it may take to repair itself. And if the damage is chronic, these changes may be irreversible. However, the earlier you seek treatment, the better off you’ll be in the long run (by managing symptoms more effectively and preventing the damage from progressing further).
If your brain and feet are having communication issues, schedule an appointment with Jeffrie C. Leibovitz, D.P.M. as soon as possible. You can reach our Indianapolis office by calling 317-545-0505.