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Doctor Decoded: What Is Peripheral Neuropathy?

In this video, learn about the peripheral nervous system and what causes peripheral neuropathy—a loss of sensation in the hands and feet.

Lauren Smith, MAAlexandra Schwarz, MD
Written by Lauren Smith, MA | Reviewed by Alexandra Schwarz, MD
Updated on January 31, 2022

Your feet and fingers have felt tingly and numb for weeks, and your doctor gives you the news: It’s peripheral neuropathy.


It’s an intimidating pair of words, but basically, neuropathy refers to a loss of sensation, and peripheral refers to the peripheral nervous system.

The Peripheral Nervous System

Your nervous system has two main parts. You’re likely more familiar with your central nervous system, or CNS, which includes the brain and spinal cord. Your CNS gets a lot of attention since it is essentially the control room for your entire body, managing all your bodily functions, actions, reactions, and impulses.

But there’s also the peripheral nervous system, which refers to all the peripheral nerves that extend out of the CNS throughout your body. The peripheral nerves can detect important information from your skin, joints, or muscles and send that information to the CNS for interpretation.

For example, you can sense touch or temperature via receptors in the skin and muscles. Your peripheral nerves are responsible for sending that information to the CNS, which allows you to identify a sensation and react if necessary. (So if you touch a hot stove, your CNS will prompt your body to pull your hand away—ASAP.)

What Causes Peripheral Neuropathy?

Certain things can upset the signal between your peripheral and central nervous systems, causing it to misfire or not send at all. When this information isn’t properly sent to the CNS, you don’t “feel” the sensation. This results in numbness, tingling, weakness, or pain—especially in the hands and feet.

Peripheral neuropathy has many causes, but the most common cause is diabetes. This occurs because sustained high blood sugar levels can damage the nerves over time.  (This is sometimes referred to as diabetic neuropathy.) Other causes of peripheral neuropathy include injuries and certain medications and illnesses, such as shingles and Lyme disease.

Got peripheral neuropathy or diabetes? Here are 7 healthy habits for foot care with neuropathy.


Approach to a patient with sensory loss. Waltham, MA: UpToDate, 2019. (Accessed on February 1, 2022 at https://www.uptodate.com/contents/approach-to-the-patient-with-sensory-loss.)

Brain and nervous system. Jacksonville, FL: KidsHealth. (Accessed on February 1, 2022 at https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/brain-nervous-system.html.)

View All References (4)

Central nervous system and peripheral nervous system. Washington, DC: MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine. (Accessed on February 1, 2022 at https://medlineplus.gov/ency/imagepages/8679.htm.)

Diabetic neuropathy. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Diabetes and DIgestive and Kidney Diseases. (Accessed on February 1, 2022 at https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/preventing-problems/nerve-damage-diabetic-neuropathies.)

Peripheral neuropathy fact sheet. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, 2019. (Accessed on February 1, 2022 at https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Fact-Sheets/Peripheral-Neuropathy-Fact-Sheet.)

What is peripheral neuropathy? Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society, 2018. (Accessed on February 1, 2022 at https://www.cancer.org/latest-news/what-is-peripheral-neuropathy.html.)

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