Peripheral Neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy is a common neurological disorder resulting from damage to the peripheral nerves. Peripheral nerves, located outside of the brain and spinal cord, provide the means of communication between the brain and other parts of the body, including muscles, skin, internal organs and blood vessels. Neuropathies affect at least 20 million people in the United States.

If one nerve is damaged, the condition is referred to as mononeuropathy. If many nerves are involved, it is called polyneuropathy.

At UCSF Medical Center, our experts diagnose and treat peripheral neuropathy by focusing on the underlying condition. We also provide education, support and outreach programs for patients suffering from these disorders.

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Causes of Peripheral Neuropathy

Although there are some cases in which the cause is unknown, peripheral neuropathies have many well-defined causes, including:

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Although there are numerous causes of peripheral neuropathies, they do share some common symptoms, including:

  • Weakness, numbness and pain in the hands, legs and/or feet
  • Paresthesia, a condition that causes abnormal sensations such as burning, tickling, pricking or tingling

A crucial part of diagnosing neuropathy is to identify the cause of the underlying condition. Both physical and neurological exams will be performed. A number of tests may be used to determine the underlying cause of neuropathy and rule out other conditions. Along with blood and urine tests, the following also may be performed:

  • Electroencephalography (EEG) — This test records electrical activity inside the brain.
  • Spinal Tap — During this test, also called a lumbar puncture, a special needle is placed into the lower back in the spinal canal, the area around the spinal cord. A small amount of cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) is removed for testing. CSF is the fluid that bathes the brain and spinal cord.
  • Computed Tomography (CT) — A CT scan is a series of detailed pictures of the brain, created by a computer linked to an X-ray machine.
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Therapy for peripheral neuropathy focuses on treating the underlying cause. For example, if the condition is caused by diabetes, therapy will aim to control diabetes. If a tumor or ruptured disc is the cause, treatment may involve surgery to remove the tumor or repair the ruptured disc. In other cases, treatment may focus on managing pain.

Fortunately, peripheral nerves have a remarkable ability to regenerate themselves. New treatments that are currently being developed and studied use nerve growth factors or gene therapy to treat peripheral neuropathy. This work may offer improved chances for recovery in the future.

UCSF Research & Clinical Trials


Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.