Nerve damage

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at October 30, 2016
StartDiseasesNerve damage

Nerve damage can cause debilitating symptoms. There are three main types of nerves in the body: autonomic nerves, motor nerves, and sensory nerves. When any one of these types of nerves are damaged, it can alter a person's quality of life or even be fatal.


Definition & Facts

Nerve damage occurs when the nerves of the central nervous system or peripheral nervous system sustain injury. There are a multitude of nerves in the body, so the symptoms, course of treatment, and prognosis vary greatly from case to case. It is estimated that over 20 million people in the United States alone suffer from some form of nerve damage. 

Symptoms & Complaints

The severity and location of nerve damage greatly determines the symptoms that may be present. Damage caused to the autonomic nervous system can cause symptoms such as lightheadedness, too much sweating or too little sweating, dry mouth, dry eyes, constipation, bladder dysfunction, and sexual dysfunction.

It can also cause more serious symptoms such as the inability to feel chest pain or a heart attack. When damage is caused to the motor nerves, the patient may develop a general weakness of the body, twitching, muscle atrophy, or possible paralysis.

Sensory nerve damage has its own set of symptoms which range from pain and sensitivity to numbness and burning, often felt at night. Symptoms of damage to any of the three nervous systems can become severe and range from muscle wasting, organ dysfunction or death, and difficulty breathing.


Due to the wide range of types of nerve damage, there is also a wide range of causal factors. Cancer and autoimmune diseases are causes of nerve pain and damage. In cases of cancer, masses can push up against or into nerves. Cancer treatments, such as radiation or chemotherapy, can also damage the nerves in some cases. Autoimmune diseases often attack or cause great pain in the peripheral nerves of the body.

Prescribed or illegal drugs also have the ability to cause nerve damage as well as toxic substances like lead and mercury. Malnutrition can also cause nerve pain and damage.

Diabetes is a common cause of nerve damage. Around 70% of the people suffering from diabetes also have some form of nerve damage. Most often this damage causes tingling or burning in the feet of those affected.

General trauma or bodily injury is a frequent cause of nerve pain or damage. Anything that traumatizes or compresses the body's nerves will cause this problem. Repetitive stress to a part of the body, such as repetitive sports injuries can lead to nerve conditions and damage. Infectious disease, including HIV, hepatitis C, and Lyme disease, can affect the nervous system as well. 

Diagnosis & Tests

Because of the wide range of cause and types of nerve damage, a number of tests may be ordered by the doctor to rule out other diseases or conditions. These tests may include a full blood workup, a physical examination, X-rays, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

There are also a few tests dedicated to testing the nerves of the body. One of these tests is called nerve conduction velocity (NCV) testing. This is an electrical test similar to tests done to check the flow in an electrical wire. Commonly the NCV test is ordered to assess patients with weakness in the arms or legs. It is done by sending small electrical signals down the arms or legs while electrodes are placed on the skin to measure the time it takes for the signal to travel between these skin electrodes. This helps the doctor determine if the nerves are working properly.

Another common test ordered by doctors to check for nerve damage is the electromyogram test, or EMG. This can detect pinched nerves in the back or neck. This test works by checking for electrical activity in muscles by using small needles to record electrical noise.

Treatment & Therapy

Nerve damage cannot be completely cured in many cases. Treatments are often performed to reduce the symptoms associated with an improperly functioning nerve. Commonly, treatment of the underlying condition is the first step to the actual treatment of the nerve damage. This can include the regulation of blood sugar levels, physical therapy, or surgery to reduce nerve compression, the addition of medications prescribed to treat autoimmune conditions or the changing of already used medications.

There are a few drugs the doctor may prescribe to reduce the amount of nerve pain felt by the patient. These can be pain relievers and certain types of antidepressants or anti-seizure medications. Some patients have noted nerve pain improvement with a variety of alternative approaches such as hypnosis, meditation, acupuncture or chiropractic care. Sometimes, a nerve may heal itself by growing new fibers to the muscle or sensory receptor but this can often take months or years. 

Prevention & Prophylaxis

To the extent that nerve damage is caused by diabetes, eating a healthy diet, regularly exercising, and maintaining a healthy weight can help prevent nerve damage. Those diagnosed with diabetes can reduce their risk of pain or damage to the nerves by monitoring their blood sugar levels and taking the proper steps to make sure their levels are under control.

Unfortunately, many of the other cases of nerve damage cannot be prevented. Cancer and autoimmune diseases in most cases cannot be prevented. Trauma can happen without warning thus making it almost impossible to prevent many cases of nerve damage.