Neuropathy: what is it and do you have it?

There’s a phrase often used in romance novels (so I’m told) – ‘that tingling feeling’. In the context of these novels, it’s almost always a good sensation, brought on by love and/or passion. But getting a tingling feeling isn’t always an indication of pleasure. Pins and needles or numbness in the hands or feet can be a sign of potential health issues. The broad medical term for this group of symptoms is ‘neuropathy’. 

Neuropathy is nerve damage that causes pain and numbness in the feet and hands, and it can have far-reaching effects. It can eventually lead to falls, infection and even amputation. And according to a new study, it’s more common than most would think, and underdiagnosed.

Study co-author Melissa A. Elafros from the University of Michigan, says it’s also an indicator of a higher risk of earlier death,  “even when you take into account other conditions …  so identifying and treating people with or at risk for neuropathy is essential”.

That tingling feeling – neuropathy or not?

Most of us will know when a tingling sensation is a good thing. This positive feeling, often triggered by thoughts of a loved one, has a scientific name: autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). It usually begins on the scalp and moves down the back of the neck and upper spine.

Tingling can also be a symptom of neuropathy. But it’s one of a number of different ones and, in this case, not one triggered by positive thoughts. Other symptoms associated with neuropathy, some more common than others, include:

  • pain (often worse at night)
  • numbness
  • tingling, or ‘pins and needles’
  • a burning sensation
  • electric shock-like sensations.

Neuropathy can also cause muscle weakness, a loss of movement or function and problems with balance. 

The new study, published in Neurology, aimed to identify the prevalence of neuropathy in non-Hispanic black, low-income patients. The participants all came from the city of Flint, in Michigan. Dr Elafros’s study enlisted 169 participants, half of whom had diabetes, which is known to increase the risk of neuropathy.

About two-thirds of the participants had metabolic syndrome. Also known to increase the risk of neuropathy, metabolic syndrome is a collection of conditions occurring together. These include high levels of belly fat, high blood pressure and high levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, among others.

The researchers found that nearly three-quarters of participants had neuropathy. Significantly, of those who did have neuropathy, 75 per cent were previously undiagnosed. What’s more, after adjusting for relevant factors, the researchers found that people with metabolic syndrome were more than four times more likely to have neuropathy than those who didn’t.

What can we learn from this study?

The underdiagnosis of neuropathy is perhaps the most significant takeaway from this research. While this study did not confirm a link between socioeconomic disadvantage, previous studies have done so.

While those studies evaluated American populations, it’s reasonable to assume a similar link would exist here in Australia. A Department of Health focus on identifying and addressing similar links here would not go astray, given neuropathy’s potentially serious consequences.

In lieu of that, what can individual Australians do? The government’s Health Direct website page on neuropathy suggests seeing your doctor as soon as possible if you have any symptoms of:

  • numbness
  • a tingling or prickling feeling in your skin
  • a feeling of extra sensitivity to light touch
  • weakness
  • trouble with your coordination
  • pain that feels like burning or electric shock-like sensations.

These are not necessarily signs of a serious condition, but a trip to the GP to discuss them would help determine your best course of action regardless. As with all health conditions, the earlier you act, the better your chances of a healthy outcome. And a healthy outcome might just give you a positive version of ‘that tingling feeling’.

Do you experience symptoms of neuropathy often? Have you discussed this with your GP? Let us know via the comments section below.

Also read: Getting slower with age? Here’s why

Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Andrew Gigacz
Andrew Gigacz
Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.
- Our Partners -


- Advertisment -
- Advertisment -