We have billions of nerves embedded throughout our bodies, creating a network with the purpose of transmitting messages between the brain, spinal cord and other parts of the body. When the nerves are healthy and in good working condition, your brain is able to coordinate bodily activities normally. You are able to manage physical movement, feel normal sensation (touch, pressure, temperature changes, pain, etc.) and more. However, nerves can become damaged due to injury or disease, often setting off a chain reaction of complications for affected individuals.
A look at nerve damage
Sensory nerves are responsible for informing your brain of certain dangers: sharp objects, hot surfaces, rough textures. A damaged nerve lacks the capacity to relay such messages. Individuals with impaired nerve function can more easily suffer burns, cuts, and other injuries due to this lack of reaction to external stimulus.
According to statistics, an estimated 20 million Americans suffer from neuropathy. Diabetes is the #1 reason for nerve damage, followed by inherited anatomical defect. Other potential causes of nerve damage can include auto-immune diseases (i.e., lupus, rheumatoid arthritis), certain viruses, increased exposure to toxins, or sudden trauma. However, some cases of nerve damage are classified as idiopathic, meaning that no direct cause can be established.
Symptoms of Nerve Damage
These are some associated symptoms of nerve damage:
- burning sensation
- difficulty in moving body parts
- unusual clumsiness
- brief, but intense, “electric” pain
Nerve damage is a gradual process, developing slowly and worsening over time. The implication of this is that it could be treated before it worsens.
The first goal of treatment is to identify and remedy the underlying condition responsible for the nerve damage. This may include controlling blood sugar level in diabetics, correcting nutritional deficiencies, and the use of therapy or surgery to treat trauma to nerves, use of medication to treat autoimmune conditions. Prescribed medication includes pain relievers, anti-inflammatory medications and tricyclic antidepressants.
Most people assume that nerve recovery is impossible, because we understand that spinal cord nerve injuries rarely heal. However, when a peripheral nerve injury occurs, these nerves will attempt self-repair by regenerating new nerve units. These units then re-innervate, establishing a connection between the nerves and other bodily tissues like muscle and skin. The result of a healthy healing process is that sensation and muscle control are fully (or sometimes partially) restored. On the other hand, failure during this nerve regeneration process can mean that the individual will require surgical intervention later.
Can a change of diet help?
Vitamin B12 – Nerves are covered with a protective myelin sheath just like electrical wires are covered with a non-conductive rubber sleeve. The deterioration of the myelin sheath results in nerve damage. Nutrition can play a vital role in the treatment of neuropathy. Vitamin B12 has been found to enhance the body’s ability to repair and maintain cells, particularly nerve cells and their myelin sheaths. Foods rich in vitamin B12 include animal products like eggs, meat, shellfish, poultry, milk and eggs. Vegetarians and vegans are most at risk for being vitamin B12 deficient, and they should look for a nutritional supplement or fortified foods.
Antioxidants foods also help in healing damaged nerves while reducing the risk of cancer and immune diseases. They are particularly effective if nerve damage is suffered as a result of the interaction of free radicals with cells of the body. Foods rich in antioxidants (berries, grapes, spinach, tomatoes, broccoli, green tea) neutralize the effect of free radicals. Many of these foods are also anti-inflammatory, making them more effective.
Nerves become inflamed when the immune system tries to protect itself against foreign antibodies. If the activity of the white blood cells is misguided, they can destroy normal body tissue in the process. There are foods that help reduce bodily inflammation, including walnuts, green leafy vegetables, fatty fish, and fruit. If you make a dietary change, make sure to also avoid or limit consumption of inflammatory foods: red meat, processed carbs, fried foods and sodas.
Early diagnosis and treatment are vital for healing or managing nerve damage. In our Houston podiatry clinic, we treat patients with peripheral nerve damage every day. Sometimes it’s possible to guide a patient through full recovery. When that’s not possible, we help patients improve their symptoms and prevent the condition from worsening. This isn’t the result of seeing the doctor for a yearly checkup. It takes a partnership between patient and doctor to achieve optimal results, based on compliance, accountability and a focus on effective health management. If nerve damage is affecting your foot and ankle health, call (713) 541-3199 to schedule an appointment with Dr. Gabriel Maislos, DPM, FACFAS.
Call (713) 541-3199 if you experience:
- loss of sensation in the foot or ankle
- tingling or burning
- loss of muscular control