Nerve Conditions

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What are nerve conditions?

The nervous system consists of two anatomic parts. The central nervous system includes the brain and spinal cord. The peripheral nervous system transmits sensory information between the muscles, tissues and nerves in the rest of the body to the brain. When any of these connections are disrupted, nerve symptoms occur.

Nerve conditions often originate in the peripheral nervous system and can manifest with burning, numbness, pins-and-needles sensations, muscle weakness or paralysis, and sensitivity. These symptoms may be caused by a local injury, in which the pain can be directly related to a trauma, or a systemic illness that affects your entire body. In referred pain, a more complex condition, the sensation of pain is felt in a different part of your body than where the injury or illness actually occurred. Referred pain is the most difficult to diagnose and treat.

Nerve conditions can arise from one nerve or many. Some syndromes occur when the nerve is compressed and deprived of proper blood flow. For example, carpal tunnel syndrome may develop from repetitive wrist or hand motions. Diabetes is a common cause of peripheral neuropathies (nerve disorders), the result of nerve damage from high blood sugar. Nerve symptoms can also stem from autoimmune diseases such as lupus erythematosus or Guillain-Barré syndrome or viruses such as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), Epstein-Barr, or varicella-zoster.

Nerve conditions due to a malfunctioning of the autonomic nervous system (part of the peripheral nervous system) may interrupt involuntary actions such as breathing, swallowing, bladder control, or perspiration. They may be accompanied by symptoms of low blood pressure such as dizziness or vertigo, or loss of consciousness. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these symptoms, as they can be life threatening.

What are the symptoms of nerve conditions?

The symptoms of nerve conditions are diverse because the nervous system governs or participates in a number of functions as well as body systems, including control of body temperature, blood pressure, muscles, digestion and appetite, movement, and sight.

Common symptoms of nerve conditions

The symptoms of nerve conditions are diverse and can include the following:

  • Altered smell or taste

  • Burning feeling

  • Confusion or cognitive changes

  • Loss of balance

  • Loss of consciousness

  • Loss of muscle coordination

  • Muscle weakness

  • Numbness

  • Pain from an origin that does not usually cause pain or that follows the course of a specific nerve

  • Paralysis or inability to move a body part

  • Pins-and-needles (prickling) sensation

  • Sensitivity

  • Tingling

Gastrointestinal symptoms that may occur along with nerve symptoms

Nerve conditions may accompany symptoms related to other body systems, such as the digestive system including:

  • Difficulty chewing
  • Digestive problems
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Nausea with or without vomiting

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, nerve symptoms may be life threatening and should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Abnormal pupil size or nonreactivity to light

  • Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness

  • Difficulty swallowing

  • Disorientation

  • Dizziness or vertigo

  • Garbled or slurred speech or inability to speak

  • Loss of muscle coordination

  • Respiratory or breathing problems, such as shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, labored breathing, wheezing, not breathing, or choking

  • Seizures

  • Sudden paralysis or inability to move a body part

What causes nerve conditions?

The causes of nerve conditions are as diverse as the nervous system itself. A common origin for nerve symptoms is the peripheral nervous system, which transmits sensory signals from the rest of the body to the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord).

Nerve conditions can arise from one nerve or many. Some syndromes occur when a nerve is compressed and deprived of proper blood flow. For example, carpal tunnel syndrome may occur from repetitive wrist or hand motions. Diabetes is a common cause of neuropathies (nerve disorders), the result of nerve damage from high blood sugar. Nerve conditions can stem from autoimmune diseases, such as lupus or Guillain-Barré syndrome, or from an infection with viruses such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or Epstein-Barr virus.

Some viruses can remain dormant in your nerve cells and recur over many years. For example, the varicella-zoster virus that causes chickenpox can, much later in life, produce painful nerve conditions, such as shingles and postherpetic neuralgia.

Infectious causes of nerve conditions

Some infections can result in damage to the nerves or nerve conditions including:

Chronic disease causes of nerve conditions

Chronic disease can affect the nerves as well as other body systems. Examples of chronic diseases that can cause nerve conditions include:

  • Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (inherited disorder affecting the peripheral nerves)

  • Complex regional pain syndromes

  • Connective tissue disorders

  • Diabetes (a chronic disease that affects your body’s ability to use sugar for energy)

  • Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)

  • Myasthenia gravis

  • Multiple sclerosis

  • Neurofibromatosis

  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (a disorder in which the body attacks its own healthy cells and tissues)

  • Vascular disorders

Other causes of nerve conditions

Other causes of nerve conditions include:

  • Alcohol abuse

  • Dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease

  • Guillain-Barré syndrome (autoimmune nerve disorder)

  • Medication side effects

  • Nutritional deficiencies, especially of thiamine, niacin, and vitamins E, B1, B6, or B12

  • Prolonged exposure to toxins such as lead, mercury, and other metals

  • Repetitive stress injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome

Serious or life-threatening causes of nerve conditions

Nerve conditions can also be due to serious or even potentially life-threatening causes including:

  • Brain or spinal cord tumors

  • Stroke

  • Transient ischemic attack (temporary stroke-like symptoms that may be a warning sign of an impending stroke)

What are the risk factors for nerve conditions?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing nerve conditions. Not all people with risk factors will get nerve conditions. Risk factors for nerve conditions vary according to the type of condition. Some risk factors for nerve damage include:

  • Alcohol or illicit substance abuse
  • Diabetes
  • Family history of degenerative neurologic conditions
  • High blood pressure
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Repeated physical motion or stress

How are nerve conditions treated?

Treatment for nerve conditions begins when you seek medical care from your health care provider. The cause, duration and severity of your nerve condition will determine the appropriate treatment. The goals of therapy are to manage the symptoms, including pain, and to treat the underlying condition, if possible. Therapies include medication, surgery, and injections of local anesthetics, as well as complementary treatments such as biofeedback, acupuncture and massage.

Medications for nerve conditions

  • Analgesics, such as codeine, fentanyl (Duragesic, Fentora, Actiq) and oxycontin (OxyContin, Roxicodone)

  • Analgesics that relieve nerve pain such as pregabalin (Lyrica)

  • Anticonvulsants such as gabapentin (Neurontin, Gabarone)

  • Antidepressants, particularly tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline (Elavil)

  • Antiviral medications to reduce recurrence of postherpetic neuralgia

  • Local anesthetics or topical nerve blocks

Other treatments for nerve conditions

  • Control of high blood sugar (to prevent neuropathy for people with diabetes)

  • Injection of local anesthetics

  • Injection of nerve blocks

  • Motor cortex stimulation

  • Physical therapy

  • Surgery to block the nerve sensations causing pain

  • Surgery to remove tumors or other obstructions on the nerve

Complementary treatments

Some complementary treatments may help some people better deal with nerve conditions. These treatments, sometimes referred to as alternative therapies, are used in conjunction with traditional medical treatments. Complementary treatments are not meant to substitute for traditional medical care. Be sure to notify your doctor if you are consuming nutritional supplements or homeopathic (nonprescription) remedies as they may interact with the prescribed medical therapy.

Complementary treatments may include:

  • Acupuncture

  • Massage therapy

  • Nutritional dietary supplements, herbal remedies, tea beverages, and similar products

  • Yoga

What are the potential complications of nerve conditions?

Because nerve conditions can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce your risk of potential complications including:

  • Amputation
  • Paralysis or inability to move a body part
  • Permanent disability
  • Permanent nerve damage
  • Permanent or chronic pain
  • Poor quality of life
  • Spread of cancer
  • Spread of infection
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 19
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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  4. Bope ET, Kellerman RD (Eds.) Conn’s Current Therapy. Philadelphia: Saunders, 2013.