Sensory nerve damage causes a more complex range of symptoms because sensory nerves have a wider, more highly specialized range of functions. Larger sensory fibers enclosed in myelin (a fatty protein that coats and insulates many nerves) register vibration, light touch, and position sense. Damage to large sensory fibers lessens the ability to feel vibrations and touch, resulting in a general sense of numbness, especially in the hands and feet. People may feel as if they are wearing gloves and stockings even when they are not. Many patients cannot recognize by touch alone the shapes of small objects or distinguish between different shapes. This damage to sensory fibers may contribute to the loss of reflexes (as can motor nerve damage). Loss of position sense often makes people unable to coordinate complex movements like walking or fastening buttons, or to maintain their balance when their eyes are shut. Neuropathic pain is difficult to control and can seriously affect emotional well-being and overall quality of life. Neuropathic pain is often worse at night, seriously disrupting sleep and adding to the emotional burden of sensory nerve damage.
Smaller sensory fibers without myelin sheaths transmit pain and temperature sensations. Damage to these fibers can interfere with the ability to feel pain or changes in temperature. People may fail to sense that they have been injured from a cut or that a wound is becoming infected. Others may not detect pains that warn of impending heart attack or other acute conditions. (Loss of pain sensation is a particularly serious problem for people with diabetes, contributing to the high rate of lower limb amputations among this population.) Pain receptors in the skin can also become oversensitized, so that people may feel severe pain (allodynia) from stimuli that are normally painless (for example, some may experience pain from bed sheets draped lightly over the body).
Symptoms of autonomic nerve damage are diverse and depend upon which organs or glands are affected. Autonomic nerve dysfunction can become life threatening and may require emergency medical care in cases when breathing becomes impaired or when the heart begins beating irregularly. Common symptoms of autonomic nerve damage include an inability to sweat normally, which may lead to heat intolerance; a loss of bladder control, which may cause infection or incontinence; and an inability to control muscles that expand or contract blood vessels to maintain safe blood pressure levels. A loss of control over blood pressure can cause dizziness, lightheadedness, or even fainting when a person moves suddenly from a seated to a standing position (a condition known as postural or orthostatic hypotension).
Gastrointestinal symptoms frequently accompany autonomic neuropathy. Nerves controlling intestinal muscle contractions often malfunction, leading to diarrhea, constipation, or incontinence. Many people also have problems eating or swallowing if certain autonomic nerves are affected.
Peripheral neuropathy may be either inherited or acquired. Causes of acquired peripheral neuropathy include physical injury (trauma) to a nerve, tumors, toxins, autoimmune responses, nutritional deficiencies, alcoholism, and vascular and metabolic disorders. Acquired peripheral neuropathies are grouped into three broad categories: those caused by systemic disease, those caused by trauma from external agents, and those caused by infections or autoimmune disorders affecting nerve tissue. One example of an acquired peripheral neuropathy is trigeminal neuralgia (also known as tic douloureux), in which damage to the trigeminal nerve (the large nerve of the head and face) causes episodic attacks of excruciating, lightning-like pain on one side of the face. In some cases, the cause is an earlier viral infection, pressure on the nerve from a tumor or swollen blood vessel, or, infrequently, multiple sclerosis. In many cases, however, a specific cause cannot be identified. Doctors usually refer to neuropathies with no known cause as idiopathic neuropathies.
Physical injury (trauma) is the most common cause of injury to a nerve. Injury or sudden trauma, such as from automobile accidents, falls, and sports-related activities, can cause nerves to be partially or completely severed, crushed, compressed, or stretched, sometimes so forcefully that they are partially or completely detached from the spinal cord. Less dramatic traumas also can cause serious nerve damage. Broken or dislocated bones can exert damaging pressure on neighboring nerves, and slipped disks between vertebrae can compress nerve fibers where they emerge from the spinal cord.