Peripheral nerves send messages from your brain and spinal cord to the rest of your body, helping you do things such as sensing that your feet are cold and moving your muscles so that you can walk. Made of fibers called axons that are insulated by surrounding tissues, peripheral nerves are fragile and easily damaged.
A nerve injury can affect your brain's ability to communicate with your muscles and organs. Damage to the peripheral nerves is called peripheral neuropathy.
It's important to get medical care for a peripheral nerve injury as soon as possible. Early diagnosis and treatment may prevent complications and permanent damage.
With a peripheral nerve injury, you may experience symptoms that range from mild to seriously limiting your daily activities. Your symptoms often depend on which nerve fibers are affected:
You may experience a range of symptoms because many peripheral nerve injuries affect more than one type of nerve fibers.
If you experience weakness, tingling, numbness or a total loss of feeling in a limb, see your doctor to determine the cause. It's important to treat peripheral nerve injuries early.
Peripheral nerves can be damaged in several ways:
Other causes include narrowing of the arteries, hormonal imbalances and tumors.
Your doctor will review your medical history, ask about any accidents or previous surgeries, and discuss your symptoms with you. Your doctor will also conduct a physical and neurological examination. If your neurological examination shows signs of a nerve injury, your doctor may recommend diagnostic tests, which may include:
If a nerve is injured but not cut, your injury is more likely to heal. Injuries in which the nerve has been completely severed are very difficult to treat and recovery may not be possible.
Your doctor will determine your treatment based on the extent and cause of your injury and how well the nerve is healing.
If your injury does not seem to be healing properly, your surgeon can use EMG testing in the operating room to assess whether scarred nerves are recovering. Doing an EMG test directly on the nerve is more accurate and reliable than doing the test over the skin.
Sometimes a nerve sits inside a tight space (similar to a tunnel) or is squeezed by scarring. In these cases, your surgeon may enlarge the tight space or free the nerve from the scar.
Sometimes a section of a nerve is cut completely or damaged beyond repair. Your surgeon can remove the damaged section and reconnect healthy nerve ends (nerve repair) or implant a piece of nerve from another part of your body (nerve graft). These procedures can help your nerves to regrow.
If you have a particularly severe nerve injury, your doctor may suggest surgery to restore function to critical muscles by transferring tendons from one muscle to another.
A number of tests may be used to help diagnose the type and severity of peripheral nerve injuries. When you make your appointment, be sure to ask whether you need to prepare for these tests. For instance, you may need to stop taking certain medications for a few days or avoid using lotions the day of the test.
If possible, take along a family member or friend. Sometimes it can be difficult to absorb all the information you're given during an appointment. Someone who accompanies you may remember something that you forgot or missed.
Other suggestions for getting the most from your appointment include:
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