Autoimmune Diseases That Cause Peripheral Neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy occurs when the nerves in the arms and legs are damaged due to injury or disease. The condition causes a wide range of symptoms such as numbness or tingling, weak muscles, loss of sensations and insensitivity to temperature. Autoimmune diseases result from a malfunction of the body's immune system in which the immune cells attack healthy cells. Autoimmune diseases affect approximately 23.5 million Americans, according to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association.

Arthritic hands (Image: filrom/iStock/Getty Images)

Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis, a chronic and often debilitating disease, occurs when the immune system attacks the myelin, the fatty substance that surrounds and protects the nerves. As myelin becomes damaged, scar tissue forms and interferes with the signals between the nerves, the spinal cord and the brain. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society reports that approximately 2.1 million people worldwide suffer from multiple sclerosis. When the peripheral nerves in the extremities become damaged, the patient experiences numbness and tingling in the arms and legs, weakness or paralysis of muscles in the arms or legs, tremors and a loss of balance.

Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes, previously known as juvenile diabetes, occurs when the immune system attacks the cells in the pancreas, known as beta cells, responsible for producing insulin. Without beta cells the body produces little to no insulin. Insulin is necessary for glucose—the form of sugar present in the bloodstream produced by digestion—to get into cells. Since cells utilize glucose as energy, if glucose cannot get into cells they cannot function properly and the glucose remains in the bloodstream, causing damage throughout the body.

Diabetes, including both type 1 and type 2, is the number one cause of peripheral neuropathy in the United States, according to the National Institute of Neurologic Disorders and Stroke. The excess glucose in the blood damages the peripheral causing a loss of feeling in the toes, feet, legs, hands and arms. Addition symptoms include numbness, tingling, burning sensation, insensitivity to pain, cramps, sharp pain and a loss of balance.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis, which according to the Arthritis Foundation affects 1.3 million Americans, occurs when the immune system attacks the cells of the synovium, the lining of the membrane surrounding the joints. This causes inflammation in the joints which over time can affect the cartilage and the bone. The swelling, stiffness and pain in the joints can lead to damage to the peripheral nerves, especially the sensory nerves.

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