Online Medical Reference

Peripheral Neuropathy

Robert W. Shields, MD

Published: August 2010

Definition and Etiology

Peripheral neuropathy, in the broadest sense, refers to a range of clinical syndromes affecting a variety of peripheral nerve cells and fibers, including motor, sensory, and autonomic fibers (Box 1). Most peripheral neuropathies affect all fiber types to some extent. However, a single fiber type may be predominantly or exclusively affected in some disorders. For example, in small-fiber neuropathy (SFN) (Table 1), small-caliber, unmyelinated, or only thinly myelinated autonomic fibers and somatic sensory fibers that subserve pain and thermal receptors are predominantly involved.1 Thus, patients with SFN present primarily with pain and autonomic dysfunction. Peripheral neuropathies are also defined by the pattern of nerve-fiber involvement. For example, some disorders involve single individual peripheral nerves—mononeuropathies—and some involve numerous individual peripheral nerves, the mononeuritis multiplex syndrome. In addition, peripheral nerve disorders can involve the brachial plexus, lumbosacral plexus, or a single root, resulting in signs and symptoms in one limb.

Box 1 Peripheral Neuropathy Syndromes
Acute-Subacute Generalized Polyneuropathies
Acute motor and sensory axonal neuropathy syndrome
Alcohol or nutritional deficiencies
Toxins (metals)
Motor More than Sensory
Acute motor axonal neuropathy syndrome
Guillain-Barré syndrome
Toxins (dapsone, vincristine)
Human immunodeficiency virus
Paraneoplastic/autoimmune (anti-Hu-associated)
Toxins (cisplatin)
Vitamin B6 toxicity
Chronic Generalized Symmetrical Polyneuropathies
Alcohol or nutritional deficiencies
Connective tissue diseases
Motor More than Sensory
Chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy
Toxins (amiodarone, cytosine arabinoside, metals, tacrolimus)
Paraneoplastic or autoimmune (anti-Hu-associated)
Sjögren's syndrome
Vitamin B6 toxicity
Vitamin E deficiency
Inherited Generalized Symmetrical Sensory and Motor Polyneuropathies
Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease types 1, 2, 3, and X
Familial amyloidosis
Hereditary predisposition to pressure palsies (focal and symmetrical)
Asymmetrical Generalized Sensory and Motor Polyneuropathies
Lyme disease
Compression and entrapment neuropathies

Most generalized disorders conform to a polyneuropathy syndrome, which usually implies both sensory and motor fiber involvement in a relatively symmetrical fashion and typically with a distal-to-proximal gradient of involvement. These disorders are termed generalized sensorimotor polyneuropathies, and they represent the most common form of peripheral neuropathy. This review focuses primarily on this form of peripheral neuropathy.

Table 1 Drugs that Can Induce Polyneuropathies
Drug Clinical Features of Polyneuropathy
Chloramphenicol Sensory, optic neuropathy
Chloroquine Sensory
Dapsone Motor
Didanosine Sensory
Ethambutol Sensorimotor
Ethionamide Sensory
Isoniazid Sensory (vitamin B6 deficiency)
Metronidazole Sensory
Nitrofurantoin Sensorimotor
Savudine Sensory
Suramin Suramin
Zalcitabine Sensory
Cisplatin Sensorimotor, ototoxicity
Cytarabine Sensory
Docetaxel Sensorimotor
Paclitaxel Sensorimotor
Procarbazine Sensorimotor
Vinblastine Sensorimotor
Vincristine Sensorimotor
Amiodarone Sensorimotor, ototoxicity
Captopril Sensorimotor
Enalapril Sensorimotor
Flecainide Sensory
Hydralazine Sensory (vitamin B6 deficiency)
Perhexiline Sensorimotor
Allopurinol Sensorimotor
Colchicine Sensory
Gold Sensorimotor
Indomethacin Sensorimotor
Disulfiram Sensory
Interferon alfa Sensorimotor
Lithium Sensorimotor
Lovastatin Sensorimotor
Phenytoin Sensorimotor
Pyridoxine Sensory
Simvastatin Sensorimotor
Thalidomide Sensorimotor

The peripheral nervous system can be involved in a wide range of medical disorders with various pathophysiologies (see Box 1). It may be affected by numerous toxins, drugs (Table 2), and industrial agents (Table 3) and by a variety of chronic infections, including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). A number of apparently immune-mediated disorders result in peripheral neuropathies, including Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy (CIDP), and multifocal motor neuropathy with conduction block syndrome (MMNCB). A host of hereditary polyneuropathies can cause a wide range of peripheral neuropathy syndromes (Box 2).

Table 2 Environmental and Industrial Toxins That Cause Polyneuropathy
Toxin Clinical Features of the Polyneuropathy
Acrylamide Sensorimotor, ataxia
Allyl chloride Sensory
Arsenic Sensorimotor
Carbon disulfide Sensorimotor
Ethylene oxide Sensorimotor, ataxia
Hexacarbons Sensorimotor
Lead Sensorimotor, motor > sensory
Mercury Sensorimotor, motor > sensory
Organophosphorus esters Sensorimotor, autonomic (cholinergic)
Thallium Sensorimotor
Trichloroethylene Cranial neuropathies


Table 3: Heredofamilial Polyneuropathies
Disorder Inheritance Clinical Pathology
CMT type 1 AD Common, childhood onset, S/M D
CMT type 2 AD Rare, later onset than type 1, EM A
CMT type 3 (Dejerine-Sottas disease) AD Rare, infantile onset, severe S/M, D
CMT, X-linked XR Second-most common, S/M, earlier onset, more severe D D
HNPP AD Variable onset, compression neuropathies, S/M D
Familial amyloidosis AD Variable onset, autonomic and S/M A
Refsum’s disease AR Variable onset, ataxia, retinitis pigmentosa D
Tangier disease AR Very rare, variable onset, splenomegaly, orange tonsils A
Fabry’s disease XR Childhood onset, SFN A

AD, autosomal dominant; AR, autosomal recessive; A, axon loss; CMT, Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease; D, demyelinating; HNPP, hereditary neuropathy with liability to pressure palsies; S/M, sensorimotor; SFN, small-fiber neuropathy; XR, X-linked recessive.


Box 2 Small-Fiber Neuropathies
Diabetes mellitus
Alcohol or nutritional deficiency
Amyloidosis (familial and primary)
Drugs or toxins
      Metals (gold, arsenic, thallium)
Primary biliary cirrhosis
      Hereditary sensory and autonomic neuropathy types I, III, and IV
      Fabry's disease
      Tangier disease
      Dominantly inherited burning foot neuropathy
      Sjögren's syndrome
Human immunodeficiency virus
Monoclonal gammopathy of uncertain significance
Idiopathic neuropathies

This diverse array of possible etiologies can make the diagnosis of peripheral neuropathies challenging. Nevertheless, the diagnosis can be facilitated with a systematic approach that classifies the peripheral neuropathy on the basis of clinical features, taking into account the type of peripheral nerve fiber that may be involved (i.e., sensory, motor, or autonomic), the distribution or pattern of peripheral nerve fiber involvement (generalized and symmetrical versus asymmetrical and multifocal), and the mode of evolution (acute, subacute, or chronic).

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Prevalence and Risk Factors

Peripheral nerve disorders are relatively common conditions that affect 2.4% of the population.2 However, the prevalence increases to 8.0% with advancing age.

The most common generalized polyneuropathy is diabetic sensorimotor polyneuropathy, which may be present in as many as 66% of type 1 diabetes patients and in nearly 59% of type 2 diabetes patients.3 Even higher prevalence rates have been reported depending on the criteria used to diagnose polyneuropathy. Considering that the prevalence rate of diabetes is approximately 1.3%, this common complication of diabetes could affect nearly 1% of the general population.

The most common genetic sensorimotor polyneuropathy is Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease type 1a, which has a prevalence of approximately 30 per 100,000 population. Carpal tunnel syndrome, caused by chronic entrapment of the median nerve in the carpal tunnel, is the most common mononeuropathy, with a prevalence estimated to be between 3% and 5% of adults.

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Pathophysiology and Natural History

Despite the diverse array of medical disorders that cause peripheral neuropathies, peripheral nerves exhibit only a few distinct pathologic reactions to an insult or disease: wallerian degeneration, axonal degeneration, and segmental demyelination. The specific mechanisms by which the various disorders affecting peripheral nerves induce these pathologic changes are largely unknown.

In wallerian degeneration, the axon degenerates distal to a focal lesion that interrupts the continuity of the axon. This reaction often occurs in focal mononeuropathies that result from trauma or nerve infarction.

Axonal degeneration, sometimes referred to as the dying-back phenomenon, results in axonal degeneration at the most distal extent of the axon. Axonal degenerative polyneuropathies are usually symmetrical, and as the disorder progresses, the axons typically degenerate in a distal-to-proximal gradient. Axonal degeneration is the most common type of pathologic reaction in generalized polyneuropathies, and it is often attributed to a metabolic cause.

Segmental demyelination refers to focal degeneration of the myelin sheath with sparing of the axon. This reaction can be seen in focal mononeuropathies and in generalized sensorimotor or predominantly motor neuropathies. Acquired segmental demyelinating polyneuropathies are often immune-mediated or inflammatory in origin. However, segmental demyelination can also occur in some hereditary polyneuropathies.

In peripheral nerve disorders that are characterized by either wallerian degeneration or axonal degeneration, prognosis is less favorable because the axon must regenerate and reinnervate muscle, the sensory organ, blood vessels, and other structures before clinical recovery is noted. Recovery may be more rapid with segmental demyelination because remyelination is accomplished more quickly, thereby re-establishing normal conductivity of the axon and return of function.

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Symptoms and Signs

A host of symptoms and signs that reflect sensory, motor, and autonomic nerve fiber dysfunction are typical of peripheral neuropathies, and some combinations of symptoms and signs may be recognized as specific syndromes of peripheral nerve disease. Sensory symptoms include sensory loss, often described by patients as a sense of numbness or a “Novocain-like” feeling. In most generalized polyneuropathies, these symptoms begin in the most distal extent of the longest sensory fibers (i.e., those that subserve sensation in the toes and feet). The pathologic changes in most of these polyneuropathies are those of a distal-to-proximal axonal degeneration that have been referred to as distal axonopathies or dying-back neuropathies. Similar symptoms may be seen in hereditary or acquired demyelinating polyneuropathies.

Sensory Symptoms

Typically, all sensory modalities are affected to some extent, including light touch, pain, thermal sensation, vibratory sense, and joint position sense. As the disease progresses, sensory loss ascends the lower extremities, typically in a symmetrical fashion. When the sensory loss is at or above the level of the knee, the axons supplying the distal fingertips begin to be involved, and the length-dependent process then begins in the upper extremities. In addition to sensory loss, patients often complain of paresthesias and dysesthesias, often characterized by a sense of numbness, tingling, prickling, and pins-and-needles sensations. They might also complain of intense bandlike sensations and feelings of pressure.

The sensory examination often discloses a distal-to-proximal loss of the various sensory modalities. In certain polyneuropathies, pain predominates in the clinical picture, and the sensory examination tends to disclose deficits predominantly of pain and thermal sensation, conforming to an SFN. On occasion, when significant proprioceptive deafferentation occurs, patients are found to have altered joint position sense that can manifest as an ataxia or tremor of the affected limbs and an imbalance of gait and station.

Pain is a serious symptom for many patients. It may be described as a dull aching sensation, an intense burning sensation or, occasionally, as intermittent lancinating pulses of pain. On occasion, patients notice that their skin is hypersensitive to tactile stimulation such as from the touch of bed sheets or clothing or from standing on their feet. Some patients note an exaggerated painful sensation resulting from any stimulus to the affected area, a form of pain termed allodynia.


Impairment of motor function typically produces weakness in a distal-to-proximal gradient consistent with a length-dependent axonal degeneration. As with sensory loss, weakness begins in the toes, and as the polyneuropathy progresses, it ascends up the distal lower extremities to the level of the knees, at which time motor involvement in the hands may be observed. Similar patterns of weakness may be seen in demyelinating polyneuropathies. However, in the acquired segmental demyelinating polyneuropathies such as CIDP and related disorders, proximal muscle weakness resulting from root involvement may be observed outside the proximal-to-distal gradient of the dying-back mechanism. This pattern of involvement is termed a polyradiculoneuropathy.

Axonal degenerative polyneuropathies tend to produce weakness along with muscle atrophy, but atrophy is much less conspicuous in segmental demyelinating polyneuropathies because in these disorders the axon remains in continuity with the muscle, preventing denervation atrophy. The most common symptom in polyneuropathy is weakness in dorsiflexion of the feet at the ankles. This can result in a partial or complete foot drop that typically causes the feet to slap while walking and predisposes the patient to stumble and fall when the toes catch on an uneven surface.

Tendon reflexes are usually depressed or absent in a distal-to-proximal pattern of involvement, with the lower extremities affected more than the upper extremities. An exception to this is in SFN, in which the large-caliber sensory afferent fibers from muscle spindles are relatively preserved and the tendon reflexes might remain intact.

Autonomic Symptoms

In some polyneuropathies, typically in SFN, autonomic fibers are also affected. In these disorders, a variety of autonomic symptoms may be present, although certainly the most dramatic and incapacitating is orthostatic hypotension, which causes postural light- headedness, syncope, or both. However, orthostatic hypotension typically occurs only with advanced autonomic involvement.

Earlier in the course of autonomic neuropathy, patients might notice reduced or absent sweating (i.e., anhidrosis) often in a distal-to-proximal gradient. Some patients complain of excessive sweating confined to the head and neck region. This is most often secondary to anhidrosis in the limbs and thorax and reflects compensatory hyperhidrosis in the restricted areas that maintain normal sweating.

Other autonomic symptoms include dryness of the eyes and mouth and gastrointestinal dysmotility, often manifested by alternating constipation and diarrhea or by early satiety from gastroparesis. In addition, patients may have urinary bladder dysfunction caused by an atonic bladder, which results in overflow incontinence. In men, erectile dysfunction can represent an early autonomic symptom, reflecting parasympathetic autonomic nervous system involvement.

Other Symptoms and Signs

Various limb deformities and trophic changes may be observed in chronic polyneuropathies. Pes cavus, characterized by high arches and hammer toes and the clawfoot deformity, are typical foot deformities in hereditary polyneuropathies with childhood onset. These deformities are a result of progressive weakness and atrophy of intrinsic foot muscles. A similar claw-like deformity may be observed in the hand.

Autonomic involvement of a limb may, at times, cause the affected area to appear warm, red, and swollen and at other times pale and cold because of abnormal regulation of small vessels as a result of autonomic denervation. Various trophic changes can occur including tight, shiny skin.

In patients who have had severe sensory loss in the limbs, the affected areas may be subject to incidental traumas, including burns, pressure sores, and other injuries that are not perceived by the patient. In these patients, repeated injuries and traumas can result in chronic infections, sometimes leading to osteomyelitis.

In peripheral nerve disorders that are focal and asymmetrical, sensory and motor—and occasionally autonomic—symptoms and signs may conform to a specific peripheral nerve distribution. For example, in carpal tunnel syndrome, patients might complain of intermittent numbness and tingling in the median nerve distribution in the hand or, as the entrapment progresses, atrophy and weakness of the thenar muscle group. In the mononeuritis multiplex syndrome, multiple individual peripheral nerves may be affected, and the sensory, motor, and autonomic symptoms and signs will be distributed in a multifocal pattern conforming to numerous individual peripheral nerve lesions. On occasion, some peripheral nerve disorders cause generalized sensory and motor fiber involvement with asymmetrical and focal features (see Box 1).

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Diagnosis begins by recognizing typical symptoms of peripheral nerve disease and identifying the pattern of peripheral nerve involvement. For example, if the symptoms are highly restricted and focal, they might conform to the distribution of an individual peripheral nerve or, possibly, to an individual root. More-diffuse involvement of an entire limb might be caused by involvement of the brachial or lumbosacral plexus. Alternatively, if generalized symptoms are distributed in an asymmetrical and focal fashion, they may be consistent with a mononeuritis multiplex picture or possibly a polyradiculoneuropathy or polyradiculopathy syndrome. Most often, peripheral neuropathies produce symptoms that are generalized and relatively symmetrical, conforming to a distal-to-proximal gradient typical of a distal axonopathy.

History and Physical Examination

As soon as their distribution is recognized, the symptoms should be analyzed to determine which fiber types appear to be involved (i.e., sensory, motor, autonomic). In addition, the temporal profile of the disorder (i.e., chronic, subacute, acute) is noted. The neurologic examination is then helpful in confirming signs of sensory, motor, or autonomic dysfunction and in documenting the pattern and fiber type involved. These clinical features, which can be derived solely from the history and physical examination, are valuable for characterizing the nature of the peripheral nerve syndrome, which is essential in constructing a differential diagnosis (see Box 1 and Table 3).

Electrodiagnostic Studies

Another important component to the evaluation of peripheral nerve disease is electrodiagnostic studies, primarily nerve conduction studies and the needle electrode examination. Electrodiagnostic testing can document the presence of peripheral nerve disease, define the distribution and pattern of various sensory and motor fibers, and characterize the underlying pathologic processes (i.e., wallerian degeneration, axonal degeneration, segmental demyelination, or some mixture of these pathologic reactions). Characterizing the electrodiagnostic features, particularly whether the process is axonal or demyelinating, adds additional information.4

Medical Studies

Other special studies include lumbar puncture for cerebrospinal fluid analysis, which may be useful in diagnosing inflammatory or infectious causes of polyneuropathy, in evaluating acquired demyelinating polyneuropathies such as those in GBS and CIDP, and in a variety of immune-mediated polyneuropathies.

Nerve biopsy, typically sural nerve biopsy, is most often recommended in patients with asymmetrical or focal polyneuropathies in whom a diagnosis of vasculitis is being considered. In addition, biopsies may be used to assist in the diagnosis of some inflammatory, infectious, and metabolic polyneuropathies. Nerve biopsy can help to establish the pathologic basis of the polyneuropathy when electrodiagnostic studies cannot conclusively distinguish an axonal from an acquired segmental demyelinating disorder.

Special autonomic studies, particularly those that measure cardiovascular autonomic reflexes (including heart rate response to deep breathing, heart rate and blood pressure responses to the Valsalva maneuver, and heart rate and blood pressure responses to head-up-tilt) may also be valuable in documenting autonomic cardiovascular involvement. Various tests of sudomotor function including the sympathetic skin response, quantitative sudomotor axon reflex test, and thermoregulatory sweat testing can provide valuable information regarding the extent and distribution of sudomotor impairment in polyneuropathy.

Skin biopsy to measure epidermal nerve fiber density is also a helpful test for the diagnosis of SFN. Quantitative sensory testing is a technique that allows precise measurement of sensory perception thresholds of various fiber types, which can also be helpful in assessing peripheral neuropathy, especially SFN, in which the electrodiagnostic studies are often normal.

Laboratory Studies

By recognizing the peripheral nerve syndrome and appreciating the potential differential diagnosis, one may systematically perform appropriate medical tests to explore the various possible causes. The most common peripheral nerve syndrome is the generalized sensorimotor polyneuropathy with electrodiagnostic features of a distal axonopathy. For this disorder, it is usually appropriate to pursue a history of toxin exposure (see Tables 2 and 3) and alcoholism with nutritional deficiency. It is also reasonable to perform routine laboratory screening studies including a complete blood cell count; erythrocyte sedimentation rate; a blood chemistry panel encompassing hepatic function, renal function, and electrolytes; thyroid function studies; and vitamin B12 level.

It is important to screen patients for diabetes mellitus. In the past, a fasting blood sugar or hemoglobin A1c, or both, was often performed, but recent reports suggest that impaired glucose tolerance detected on a glucose tolerance test might provide more meaningful information regarding diabetes as a potential cause for polyneuropathy.5

Screening the serum and urine with protein electrophoresis with immunofixation is also important in assessing patients with generalized polyneuropathy. In one series, the only laboratory tests that were helpful in establishing a precise cause for the polyneuropathy were vitamin B12, serum protein electrophoresis with immunofixation, and serum glucose.6 Additional laboratory and radiographic studies may be considered pending the specific clinical features, and may include chest radiograph, skeletal bone survey, antinuclear antibodies, rheumatoid factor, and angiotensin-converting enzyme level.

In patients with an aggressive, evolving polyneuropathy or a specific paraneoplastic syndrome, additional testing for an occult malignancy is often performed, usually in conjunction with autoantibodies, especially anti-Hu. A variety of autoantibodies have been associated with different polyneuropathy syndromes. The most useful of these include anti-GM1 antibodies in the setting of MMNCB, anti-Hu antibodies in the context of a sensory neuronopathy, and anti-myelin-associated glycoprotein antibodies in acquired demyelinating polyneuropathy with predominately sensory features and with a distal pattern of involvement.7,8 Most of the other antibodies are much less specific, and their roles in the mechanism of the polyneuropathies are less certain. Thus, the precise value of performing panels of antibody tests is unclear at this time.9

Lumbar puncture is often reserved for patients with possible immune-mediated polyneuropathies, particularly those with demyelinating features on electrodiagnostic testing. However, CSF studies are also often assessed in cryptogenic axonal degeneration polyneuropathies and in patients with possible infectious or inflammatory disorders.

Additional Tests

In patients with electrodiagnostic features suggesting acquired segmental demyelination, a variety of tests are indicated to assess for CIDP and related disorders (Box 3), including serum and urine for protein electrophoresis with immunofixation, skeletal bone survey for myeloma or osteosclerotic myeloma, and HIV testing in patients at risk.

Box 3 Autonomic Neuropathies and Polyneuropathies with Prominent Autonomic Features
Acute pandysautonomia (paraneoplastic and idiopathic)
Guillain-Barré syndrome
Toxins (vincristine, amiodarone, cisplatin, organic solvents, metals)
Chronic pandysautonomia (paraneoplastic and idiopathic)
Riley-Day syndrome

In patients with SFN, various hereditary diseases must also be considered if the more common acquired disorders are not present (see Table 1). In the asymmetrical polyneuropathies, particularly those of acute or subacute evolution, the differential diagnosis includes various connective tissue disorders associated with vasculitis. Appropriate laboratory studies must be obtained to investigate these disorders.

The acute polyneuropathies are a special category that includes GBS, although variants and other less-common causes must also be considered. The inherited polyneuropathies are, of course, identified by a typical chronic course, often with onset in childhood and a family history of similar illness. Some of the hereditary polyneuropathies, in particular Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, may be confirmed with genetic tests performed on blood.

Despite comprehensive testing and assessments, an etiologic diagnosis is not determined in nearly 25% of patients with polyneuropathy.10 In this group, particularly those with chronic sensorimotor polyneuropathies, careful assessment of first-degree relatives may be helpful in identifying an unrecognized familial disorder. In addition, in patients with idiopathic polyneuropathy, judicious reassessment of their laboratory investigations should be performed periodically, particularly if symptoms and signs progress.

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Medical Treatment

Specific therapies for polyneuropathy are based on the precise etiologic diagnosis. In disorders attributed to underlying medical conditions, management is focused on the medical disorder. For example, optimizing glycemic control in diabetic polyneuropathy often stabilizes or improves the polyneuropathy.

In patients with idiopathic immune-mediated polyneuropathies, including GBS, CIDP, and MMNCB, specific immune-modulating therapies are often recommended.8,11 For GBS, intravenous gamma globulin (IVIg), typically administered at a dosage of 400 mg/kg daily for 5 consecutive days, is initiated early in the patient’s course. Alternatively, plasmapheresis may also be instituted as initial therapy.

Treatment of CIDP may begin with corticosteroid therapy. However, chronic IVIg or plasmapheresis, or both, are usually effective and obviate the need for long-term steroid therapy. Alternative therapies including azathioprine, cyclophosphamide, cyclosporine, mycophenolate mofetil, methotrexate, and rituximab have also been used in patients who have not responded to initial standard therapies.

Toxic polyneuropathies are managed by discontinuing the offending drug or removing the industrial toxin from the patient’s environment.

Management of hereditary polyneuropathies includes education of the affected family members regarding the nature and genetic features of the disorder and judicious screening of family members at risk.

Supportive Therapy

For all patients, and particularly for those without a specific or treatable cause, therapy focuses on supportive measures. This may include the use of various physical therapy and occupational therapy modalities including bracing and aids to ambulation. An ankle-foot orthosis may be effective in improving ambulation in a patient with foot drop. In patients with severe sensory loss in the feet and lower extremities, careful daily foot inspection for signs of trauma and infection are essential to prevent serious infections and other complications.

Pain Management

In patients who have associated pain, particularly patients with SFN, specific neuropathic pain management is instituted. Neuropathic pain typically does not respond to simple analgesics, and its potential chronicity precludes narcotic therapy as a first choice. Typically, patients with SFN and other painful polyneuropathies respond to drugs known to be effective for neuropathic pain, including tricyclic antidepressants and a variety of antiepileptic drugs and membrane stabilizers (Table 4).1,6,12

Table 4 Drug Therapy for Neuropathic Pain
Drug Daily Dosage, Range Comments
Amitriptyline 10-150 mg Sedation, anticholinergic side effects, weight gain, arrhythmia
Nortriptyline 10-150 mg Similar to amitriptyline but less sedating
Imipramine 10-300 mg Similar to amitriptyline but less sedating
Desipramine 10-300 mg Similar to amitriptyline but least sedating
Duloxetine 60-120 mg Nausea, dry mouth, constipation
Venlafaxine XR 37.5-225 mg Asthenia, nausea, sweating, ejaculatory dysfunction
Gabapentin 300-3600 mg Sedation, dizziness
Pregabalin 150-300 mg Sedation, dizziness
Carbamazepine 200-1200 mg Sedation, dizziness, nausea, bone marrow suppression
Oxycarbazepine 600-2400 mg Fatigue, nausea, dizziness, leukopenia
Lamotrigine 50-500 mg Serious rash, dizziness, nausea, sedation
Topiramate 25-400 mg Sedation, weight loss, nephrolithiasis, myopia, angle closure glaucoma
Mexiletine 150-750 mg Dyspepsia, dizziness, tremor, arrhythmia
Tramadol 50-400 mg Dizziness, nausea, constipation, seizures
Capsaicin 0.075% Topical tid-qid Burning, erythema

The choice for each patient must be individualized, taking into account potential side effects and drug interactions, among other factors. For patients requiring sedation because of disturbed sleep from the pain, a sedating tricyclic drug taken at bedtime, such as amitriptyline, is a good choice. However, the anticholinergic side effects of the tricyclic antidepressants make them a poor choice in patients with prominent dysautonomia because they are likely to worsen gastrointestinal dysmotility and bladder dysfunction.

Because most of these drugs can potentially cause sedation, it is customary to begin therapy with small doses and gradually escalate as needed and tolerated. However, it is important to increase a drug to a reasonable dosage before determining its clinical efficacy. Drugs with little efficacy despite high doses should be tapered and discontinued before starting an alternative drug. Alternatively, drugs that provide some relief but are not controlling the pain adequately may be maintained in some circumstances, and another drug may be added to the regimen.

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Peripheral neuropathies are common disorders associated with a wide range of medical conditions and immune-mediated mechanisms. With a systematic approach to the evaluation of these disorders, approximately 75% of patients have a specific etiologic diagnosis. Despite comprehensive evaluations, the peripheral nerve disorder must be regarded as cryptogenic or idiopathic in nearly 25% of patients. In most patients with a peripheral neuropathy related to a medical disorder or immune-mediated mechanism, specific therapies directed at the underlying mechanism are usually effective in controlling the peripheral neuropathy. Despite these therapies, the symptoms and signs of the peripheral neuropathy remain a chronic problem in most patients. Even in the absence of a specific treatable cause, the symptoms of polyneuropathy can be treated with a variety of supportive measures including medications for neuropathic pain, physical therapy modalities, and orthotic devices. Fortunately, for most of these patients, the peripheral nerve disorder does not result in serious disability.

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  • Peripheral neuropathy encompasses a wide spectrum of clinical disorders affecting sensory, motor, and autonomic peripheral nerve fibers.
  • Generalized peripheral neuropathy often manifests with symptoms and signs of sensory and motor deficits distributed symmetrically in a distal-to-proximal gradient, with the lower extremities more affected than the upper extremities.
  • The diagnosis of peripheral neuropathy depends on the recognition of the symptoms and signs of peripheral nerve dysfunction. Electromyography can be helpful in confirming the diagnosis and in defining the nature and extent of the peripheral neuropathy.
  • The etiologic diagnosis of peripheral neuropathy can be challenging and depends on a careful and methodologic assessment for underlying medical conditions that can cause peripheral neuropathy, as well as other causes including hereditary, toxic, and primary autoimmune peripheral nerve disorders.
  • Management of the peripheral neuropathy is directed first at the specific cause if it is treatable and second at the alleviation of symptoms, including managing neuropathic pain and bracing and physical therapy for weakness.

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Suggested Readings

  • Donofrio PD, Albers JW: Polyneuropathy: Classification by nerve conduction studies and electromyography. AAEM Minimonograph #34. Muscle Nerve 1990;13:889-903.
  • England JD, Asbury AK: Peripheral neuropathy. Lancet 2004;363:2151-2161.
  • Lacomis D: Small-fiber neuropathy. Muscle Nerve 2002;26:173-188.
  • Lindenbaum Y, Kissel JT, Mendell JR: Treatment approaches for Guillain-Barré syndrome and chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy. Neurol Clin 2001;19:187-204.
  • Mauermann ML, Burns TM: The evaluation of chronic axonal polyneuropathies. Semin Neurol 2008;28:133-151.
  • Pourmand R: Evaluating patients with suspected peripheral neuropathy: Do the right thing, not everything. Muscle Nerve 2002;26:288-290.
  • Saperstein DS: Chronic acquired demyelinating polyneuropathies. Semin Neurol 2008;28:168-184.
  • Sindrup SH, Jensen TS: Pharmacologic treatment of pain in polyneuropathy. Neurology 2000;55:915-920.
  • Singleton JR, Smith AG, Bromberg MB: Painful sensory polyneuropathy associated with impaired glucose tolerance. Muscle Nerve 2001;24:1225-1228.
  • Wolfe GI, Barohn RJ: Cryptogenic sensory and sensorimotor polyneuropathies. Semin Neurol 1998;18:105-111.


  1. Lacomis D: Small-fiber neuropathy. Muscle Nerve 2002;26:173-188.
  2. Hughes RAC: Peripheral neuropathy. BMJ 2002;324:466-469.
  3. Dyck PJ, Kratz KM, Karnes JL, et al: The prevalence by staged severity of various types of diabetic neuropathy, retinopathy, and nephropathy in a population-based cohort: the Rochester Diabetic Neuropathy Study. Neurology 1993;43:817-824.
  4. Donofrio PD, Albers JW: Polyneuropathy: classification by nerve conduction studies and electromyography. AAEM Minimonograph #34. Muscle Nerve 1990;13:889-903.
  5. Singleton JR, Smith AG, Bromberg MB: Painful sensory polyneuropathy associated with impaired glucose tolerance. Muscle Nerve 2001;24:1225-1228.
  6. Barohn RJ: Approach to peripheral neuropathy and neuronopathy. Semin Neurol 1998;18:7-18.
  7. Kissel JT: Autoantibody testing in the evaluation of peripheral neuropathy. Semin Neurol 1998;18:83-94.
  8. Saperstein DS, Katz JS, Amato AA, Barohn RJ: Clinical spectrum of chronic acquired demyelinating polyneuropathies. Muscle Nerve 2001;24:311-324.
  9. Pourmand R: Evaluating patients with suspected peripheral neuropathy: Do the right thing, not everything. Muscle Nerve 2002;26:288-290.
  10. Wolfe GI, Barohn RJ: Cryptogenic sensory and sensorimotor polyneuropathies. Semin Neurol 1998;18:105-111.
  11. Lindenbaum Y, Kissel JT, Mendell JR: Treatment approaches for Guillain-Barré syndrome and chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy. Neurol Clin 2001;19:187-204.
  12. Sindrup SH, Jensen TS: Pharmacologic treatment of pain in polyneuropathy. Neurology 2000;55:915-920.

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