Peripheral neuropathy is rarely fatal but may cause serious complications if left untreated. These complications may affect a person’s life expectancy. A healthcare professional can advise on their condition, their outlook, and how they can manage it.
Peripheral neuropathy (PN) is damage to the nerves in the peripheral nervous system. The peripheral nervous system is separate from the central nervous system (CNS) that houses your brain and spinal cord. The peripheral nervous system sends messages from your brain all around the body.
PN can cause tingling, numbness, and pain. Sometimes, severe PN can cause weakness of the limbs and may affect the functioning of some internal organs.
This article examines whether PN is life threatening, reversible, and possible treatment options.
According to the
A 2021 prospective cohort study involving 7,116 adults ages 40 or above with PN in the United States found links to mortality, or death.
However, the researchers did not associate the deaths specifically with PN. Instead, they linked the deaths to other health conditions related to PN and determined that having PN refelects severe underlying conditions.
In a follow-up after 13 years, 2,128 participants had died, and 488 of those deaths were due to cardiovascular causes.
The incidence rates of death due to any cause included the following:
- 57.6 in people with diabetes and PN
- 34.3 in people with PN but no diabetes
- 27.1 in people with diabetes but no PN
- 13 in people with no diabetes and no PN
A 2023 study of 86 people found that many of those who visited vascular specialists for peripheral artery disease (PAD) had undiagnosed neuropathy. Those with PAD and neuropathy had an increased chance of amputation and death.
Although the two conditions are different – PAD affects blood vessels, and peripheral neuropathy affects nerves – they both develop due to systemic diseases. They have associations with impaired healing and limited mobility and sensation.
Johns Hopkins notes that PN may also cause life threatening symptoms, such as an irregular heartbeat or difficulty breathing. However, this depends on its cause and what part of the body it affects,
Neuropathy can involve the autonomic nerves, which are the nerves that control the involuntary actions of the heart, digestion, breathing, and urination.
The impairment of these nerves can lead to the dysregulation of the body’s functions. This can be unpredictable and dangerous.
The life expectancy for people with PN may depend on the cause and any co-existing conditions. It can also depend on the severity of PN and any complications.
In the U.S., diabetes is a common cause of PN. According to 2019 research, diabetes and PN can lead to disabling nerve pain and lower limb amputation.
The authors state that amputation in those with diabetes has associations with a low life expectancy, averaging 2 years.
Early diagnosis and treatment for diabetic peripheral neuropathy may help to reduce the risk of complications.
PN may is not always permanent. According to the
Lifestyle changes, such as eating a balanced diet, resolving any vitamin deficiencies, and maintaining a moderate BMI, can also help to support nerve health and improve nerve resistance.
In people with diabetes and PN, managing diabetes and controlling blood sugar levels may help to:
- relieve PN symptoms
- prevent further nerve damage
- create an environment in which the nerves can stay healthy
Possible complications of PN
- severe neuropathic pain
- loss of sensation, which can lead to a risk of injuries
- muscle atrophy and weakness
- loss of balance, which can lead to falls and injury
- difficulty eating or swallowing
- bladder infections or incontinence
- difficulty breathing
- irregular heartbeat
- infected foot ulcers, which can lead to gangrene, potentially resulting in tissue death and amputation
People may also have a lower perception of the sensations of the internal organs, such as the feeling of a heart attack.
Treatment for PN depends on the underlying cause. It focuses on preventing further nerve damage, restoring nerve health, and relieving symptoms.
Treatments for PN
- immunosuppressive drugs, such as prednisone, azathioprine, or cyclosporine
- plasmapheresis, which involves removing the blood to clean it of immune system cells and antibodies before returning it to the body
- rituximab, intravenous immunoglobulins (IVIg) treatment, or certain antibodies to help to control immune system disorders causing PN
- surgery to free any compressed nerves
People can manage the pain using:
- topical medications, such as lidocaine patches or topical capsaicin, to help numb nerve pain
- behavioral, relaxation, or other natural therapies to help people manage neuropathic pain
- transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) to stimulate the nerves and improve PN symptoms
- certain medications, such as nortriptyline or serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), to help relieve pain by altering how the brain responds to pain signals
- other medications to alter nerve cell signaling may include gabapentin or pregabalin, or tapentadol for diabetic PN
There are also supportive devices to help with movement, such as orthopedic shoes or splints.
Lifestyle changes also play an important part in managing PN and improving nerve health and include the following:
- maintaining a moderate BMI
- eating a balanced, nutritious diet
- doing regular exercise helps supply nutrients, oxygen, and blood to the peripheral nerve endings
- treating any vitamin deficiencies
- avoiding exposure to harmful toxins
- avoiding smoking, as this constricts blood vessels which supply the peripheral nerves with nutrients
- controlling blood sugar levels
PN is rarely life threatening. However, without proper management, it can lead to disabling symptoms or serious complications.
Early diagnosis and treatment can help relieve symptoms, prevent complications, and in some cases, manage PN. Sometimes, treating the underlying cause may help control the nerve damage of PN.
Lifestyle changes, such as regular exercise and a balanced, nutritious diet, can also help to prevent further nerve damage.
People with PN might consider speaking with a healthcare professional about their condition and how best to manage it.