Peripheral neuropathy is a term used to describe a nerve problem that can affect walking patterns and balance. This nerve condition can be caused by injury, illnesses such as HIV and some forms of cancer, or metabolic conditions such as hypothyroidism and diabetes. Nerve damage can be temporary or permanent in nature.
What is Peripheral Neuropathy?
Peripheral neuropathy is a syndrome that produces pain, numbness, tingling or burning sensations in the hands and feet resulting from damage to the peripheral nerves. The peripheral nerves are the network of nerves connecting the limbs and organs to the brain and spinal cord. This system is responsible for the coordination of movement, responses to environmental stressors and the transportation of sensory input. Damage to the peripheral nerves can affect the nerves directly or the neuromuscular junction, the area where motor neurons meet the muscle fibres that stimulates muscle contractions for movement.
Balance Problems with Peripheral Neuropathy
Since a problem with the peripheral nerves can affect movement, and is typically seen in the feet and legs, problems with ambulation and balance can occur. Walking and balance problems arise when sensations of where the legs and feet are in space or how the lower extremities process sensory input are changed. People with peripheral neuropathy may experience things like awkward foot positioning, shifts in positioning altering their centre of gravity, and sensations like pins and needles, which can cause changes in gait or walking patterns, instability and loss of balance.
Treatment for peripheral neuropathy begins with diagnosing and treating the underlying cause. Since damaged nerves have the ability to regenerate, proper and timely treatment can help prevent permanent nerve damage. Controlling symptoms and introducing positive alternative coping methods can provide the body the time it needs to heal and correct nerve damage.
Exercise and Self Care
Proper care of the feet and legs is essential with peripheral neuropathy. Check feet often and avoid tight-fitting footwear. Use cool foot baths and massage to decrease burning sensations and to increase circulation and pain relief.
A regular routine including gentle stretching and regular exercise can benefit those suffering with peripheral neuropathy. Stretching helps maintain overall flexibility whereas exercise can prevent muscle weakness and atrophy, or wasting away of muscles. Exercise also aids in increasing circulation and overall strength and mobility. Exercise programs should be specific for the affected area and tailored to individual needs. Consulting with a qualified medical professional such as a physician or physical therapist will assure the safety and quality of exercise.
The use of assistive devices such as canes and walkers can be beneficial to maintain balance. Foot orthotics, or shoe inserts designed to maintain proper foot and/or ankle positioning, may also increase balance and stability. Vibration foot orthotics can help boost nerve sensation, which can help normalise compensation signals, thus increasing balance. These gel-based inserts with vibrating disks amplify the small changes in pressure that allow the body to respond more quickly. These insert can also increase nerve input and reduce the risk of foot injury.