University of Iowa Health Science Relations and
Matthew L. Lanternier, MD
Assistant Professor of Family Medicine
First Published: November 2000
Last Revised: September 2003
Peer Review Status: Internally Peer Reviewed
It's not a very inviting recipe. Tingling hands or feet + pain
+ hypersensitivity + numbness = peripheral neuropathy.
But it is part of the recipe of life for many Americans.
Peripheral neuropathy is not a specific disease but a
combination of several conditions that damage the peripheral
nerves that carry signals between the brain and the muscles and
skin. It often causes pain, tingling, hypersensitivity, or
numbness in an arm or leg.
There are many causes for peripheral neuropathy, and age is
one of them. Three to four percent of Americans over the age of 55
are affected by this multi-symptom condition. Other causes include
Lyme disease, HIV, alcoholism, B12 deficiency, or diabetes. In
fact, diabetes is one of the most common causes of peripheral
"When I examine an older person and see some of the symptoms
of peripheral neuropathy, I look at how it will affect that
person's ability to function on a day-to-day basis," says Matthew
Lanternier, MD, UI Family Care, Southeast Iowa City. "Does it
affect the number of falls the patient has or what they are
capable of doing for themselves."
"There are treatments, both prescription and over-the-counter,
available to treat some of the symptoms," he says. "The cause of
the disorder determines if there is a cure, and in many cases,
there is no cure."
Special safety precautions may be needed as you face an
increased risk of falls because of the numbness in your feet. Many
patients say they are unsure "where their feet are." In addition,
you should frequently examine the areas affected by peripheral
neuropathy to make sure sores and other abnormalities are treated
because peripheral neuropathy often limits the feeling of pain
associated with sores or ulcers.
The treatment for peripheral neuropathy depends on its cause.
Some prescription and over-the-counter medications can help
decrease the pain, regardless of the underlying cause.
What you can do at home
Acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and aspirin can help reduce the
Avoid tight shoes and irritating socks. They can worsen the
pain and tingling. Wear soft loose cotton socks and padded
Soak your feet or hands in cold water, but not ice water, for
15 minutes, twice a day.
Gentle massage helps improve circulation and stimulate
Get enough sleep and try to eliminate as much stress as
possible from your life.
If you are diabetic, control blood sugars.
Don't use alcohol.
Stop or decrease smoking.
Attend to all sores, ulcers or other abnormalities on your
hands and feet.