Harvard Health Letter

When nerves get damaged

Peripheral neuropathy causes strange feelings of numbness and sometimes pain.

We've all had a foot fall asleep because of the way we have been sitting or standing. The abnormal pressure pushes on nerves and compresses the blood vessels that supply them. The nerves react to their distress by sending signals that cause an unpleasant, even painful, tingling sensation. But it's a temporary situation: the pins-and-needles go away after we change position so blood vessels open up and the pressure is off the nerves.

For people with peripheral neuropathy, that tingling sensation — along with pain, burning, numbness, and other uncomfortable feelings — doesn't go away so easily. Their symptoms aren't a response to a fleeting lack of blood supply and pressure, but to injury or irritation of the nerves. Depending on which nerves are affected and the extent of the problem, muscles may weaken and eventually atrophy. And if the nerves of the autonomic nervous system are involved, basic functions like bladder and bowel control may be impaired, and the consequences even more serious.

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