Neuropathy: On Pins & Needles

Peripheral neuropathy trips up more than eight percent of seniors

WRITTEN BY Stephanie Sturdy

Some describe the sensation as “pins and needles,” while others report no feeling at all. Whether it manifests as tingling, burning or numbness, neuropathy is the result of damage to the nervous system. The most common form of the condition, peripheral neuropathy, impacts the hands and feet, and its prevalence increases with age.

Neuropathy can be caused by a range of health problems, from injuries and autoimmune diseases to vitamin deficiencies, hormonal shifts and thyroid issues. “Most cases of neuropathy are secondary to something like diabetes, chemotherapy or other medication use,” says Roper St. Francis Healthcare affiliated neurologist Dr. Thomas Hughes. 

This sort of nerve damage can lead to a ripple effect of trouble. For example, neuropathic pain can make sleep difficult, and in turn, negatively impact cognitive health, balance and function. Lack of feeling in the feet also makes walking tricky, so sufferers often shuffle. “Neuropathy in older adults contributes in no small way to problems with ability, agility and mobility,” says Dr. Hughes, pointing out that the condition increases the risk of falls in seniors.

If you experience any numbness or tingling, have trouble walking or fall frequently, talk to your doctor. Since neuropathy tends to be caused by other health problems, a diagnosis usually begins with a review of your medical history as well as physical and neurological exams. For the same reason, treatments may vary, though most plans focus on managing symptoms. “While treating the underlying cause, we also work to help the patient feel better,” explains Dr. Hughes. Medications and topical ointments are the first defense against discomfort, followed by surgical options. In the long run, though, the best way to treat neuropathy is self-care: getting enough sleep, eating right, avoiding smoking, limiting alcohol and keeping up with diabetes and cholesterol care.

Peripheral Protection

While neuropathy can’t be cured, certain healthy habits can keep the condition at bay. To help prevent its appearance or slow its progression:

  1. Take vitamin B to help with the repair of cell damage and reduce inflammation. Be sure to talk to your doctor to see if a supplement is right for you.
  2. Wear sturdy footwear. Appropriate shoes minimize wear and tear on the nerves, ease pain and discomfort and improve balance.
  3. Moisturize your hands and feet. Using lotion to remedy dry, damaged skin can reduce the risk of inflammation and infection. 
  4. Exercise to keep the nerves active and engaged. Physical activity is the key to maintaining the health and sensation of the body’s nerves.