My Feet Are Burning! Understanding Peripheral Neuropathy
First off, I’m sorry if you’re experiencing this pain. You’re not alone though. 30 million people in the United States and 380 million people world-wide suffer from neuropathic symptoms. It often feels like there’s a burning, tingling sensation in their feet when there shouldn’t be.
My intention with this article is to give you a quick and simple understanding of what neuropathy (specifically peripheral neuropathy) is, what causes it, and options for treating it. The great people at WebMD, Foundation For PM, and the U.S. Department of Health And Human Services have published in-depth pieces on the science and medicine surrounding this topic. I reference them a lot, but I don’t want to simply reiterate their work. My goal is to distill this definition down so everyone, even my 10 year old cousin, can understand it.
What is the Peripheral Nervous System?
Let’s start with what nerves are. Your nerves make up your nervous system (easy enough right?). More specifically, your peripheral nerves make up your peripheral nervous system (okay a little harder, but I’m with you). Peripheral nerves are simply the nerves not located in your brain or spinal cord (those two make up your central nervous system). So the nerves in your hands, feet, legs etc, these are all peripheral nerves. And all these peripheral nerves throughout your body create your peripheral nervous system (PNS). Your PNS is a vast communication network between your brain and your body.
So when a peripheral nerve takes in sensory information, like when your hand touches a coffee mug, it quickly sends all that information up to your brain. Is your coffee mug too hot, too heavy, too full? Your hand doesn’t know, so it sends all the information about that coffee mug up to your brain. Your brain then quickly analyzes the information, and sends commands back to your body telling it what to do. It sends those commands through your peripheral nervous system.
What Is Peripheral Neuropathy?
Peripheral neuropathy happens when there is a breakdown of this communication between brain and body. You can think of peripheral neuropathy as a blanket term that covers many different conditions caused by damage in the peripheral nervous system (PNS).
As you can imagine, this communication between your brain and your body extend far beyond your morning coffee. The messages sent from your brain to your peripheral nerves “help control everything from our heart and blood vessels” to digestion, urination and even to our bones and immune system (NIH). Without the brain sending these signals through the PNS, we wouldn’t even be able to move. Our muscles wouldn’t know to contract, which is basically how we walk, run, move our arms etc. And as you likely know, when wires get crossed, things can really go awry. This is how your feet may feel like they’re burning when they’re really not.
Symptoms of Peripheral Nerve Damage
There are over 100 types of peripheral neuropathies that affect all types of nerves. As such, symptoms range across the board. For example, patients with damage to their motor nerves will most likely experience issues with muscle weakness. In contrast, someone with damage to their autonomic nerves may experience symptoms like excessive sweating, problems regulating blood pressure or issues with their gastrointestinal system. And damage to sensory nerves can cause an even broader set of symptoms, since sensory nerves carry out an even wider range of functions.
Most people with peripheral neuropathy will experience damage to two or all three types of nerve fibers. Doctors call this polyneuropathy. You might hear something like “autonomic neuropathy” or “predominately sensory neuropathy” to classify the leading offender.
Now since this website is mostly focused on symptoms related to sensory nerve damage, like burning feet and tingling hands, let’s dive further into the sensory nerve category:
Sensory Nerve Damage: Large and Small Fibers
There are two types of sensory fibers, large and small, which manage different types of sensory experiences.
Damage to large sensory fibers can limit the ability for people to sense what they’re touching and vibrations. This makes simple tasks more difficult. Imagine getting dressed without being able to sense the buttons.
Small Fibers: That Feet Burning Feeling
On the flip side, smaller fibers are known for sending pain and temperature sensations to the brain. As you can guess, damage to these small sensory fibers is what often causes a painful misfire. Damage to these nerves can cause your feet to feel like they are burning, or trigger severe pain from something as soft as a blanket.
The majority of polyneuropathies are “length-dependent”, meaning the farthest nerve endings are the first to develop symptoms. They also experience the most pain. This explains why most people feel neuropathy pain in their feet first, maybe they’re hands, as they’re the farthest nerve endings from your central nervous system.
Causes of Peripheral Neuropathy
Leading Cause of Polyneuropathy
Diabetes is the most common cause of polyneuropathy. 60-70% of diabetes patients have mild to severe damage to their motor, autonomic, and sensory nerves. As we saw above, these nerve damages create feelings of burning feet, along with numbness, tingling, and other pains or weaknesses. Diabetes is not the only disease though, autoimmune diseases like Guillain-Barré syndrome, Sjögren’s syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus can cause neuropathic pain. As with any autoimmune disease, the body is attacking itself. In this case, it’s attacking it’s nerves specifically, like with Guillain-Barré, or it’s surrounding tissues like with Sjögren’s.
Leading Cause of Mononeuropathy
A physical injury is the most common cause of mononeuropathy. Which, opposite of polyneuropathy, means damage to a single nerve. Something like a car accident, sports injury, slipping on ice, medical procedures – these are all traumas that can lead to nerve damage. Less traumatic injuries, like arthritis or repetitive actions, can constrict nerve pathways and lead to neuropathic pain. Carpal tunnel syndrome, something we’ve all heard of as we spend countless hours at the computer, is just another type of mononeuropathy. Years of repetitive typing on keyboards can cause the nerves in our wrists to compress. Like we need another reason to get up and walk around throughout the day right?! Ergonomic keyboards and ergonomic offices in general may help prevent Carpal Tunnel too.
Cancer and chemotherapy can cause peripheral neuropathy. Tumors can press on nerve fibers, damaging them. Some chemo medications can cause “chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy.” It’s specific to which drugs are taken, and something to talk with a doctor about.
Nutritional issues, like too little B12 or too much B6, are the most common vitamin imbalances to cause polyneuropathy. But toxins and alcoholism are known to cause neuropathy pain as well.
Anything that decreases oxygen supply to the peripheral nerves can lead to damage and neuropathy pain. Blocked or narrowed arteries from things like high blood pressure or fatty deposits (atherosclerosis) and smoking or diabetes can be the culprits. Or if blood vessel walls thicken it can impede blood flow as well and cause nerve damage. You’ll want to learn more about vasculitis for that one.
Infections from viruses like West Nile, Herpes and HIV can cause neuropathy pain. It’s estimated that about 30% of people with HIV develop peripheral neuropathy. Even the virus that causes the chicken pox, or a tick bite carrying Lyme Disease are known to cause neuropathic pain.
While most neuropathies are acquired through one of the causes above, some people can also inherit neuropathy from their parents. There’s a good chance you already know if you’re going to develop a hereditary neuropathy though, as the most severe cases show up in infancy or childhood. Some young adults may develop mild cases from gene mutations (inherited or not), but it’s rare.
Treating Peripheral Neuropathy
Just like the wide-range of neuropathy symptoms, there are a wide range of neuropathy treatments. The right one depends on the type of neuropathy, the location of the nerve damage, and the severity of the pain or symptoms. Many people are able to manage their neuropathy pain without invasive treatments like medications and surgeries. It all depends on the specifics for each person, but let’s run through some leading home remedies for treating neuropathy pain:
- If a neuropathic pain is caused by lifestyle habits like smoking or poor diet and exercise, then changing those behaviors is neuropathy attack strategy #1. We’ll be adding our favorite resources to help with those strategies soon.
- In addition to diet and exercise, our website is called Socks For Neuropathy for a reason. It’s because we’ve seen first hand how quickly and widely the socks from VoxxLife help relieve neuropathic pain. Their socks have a special technology in them that send a message up through the Peripheral Nervous System to the brain. The brain then decodes the message and sends commands back down through the PNS. Those commands help the body regulate pain, and balance, among other things. This clinical study found that 941 out of 1,000 diabetes patients reported significant neuropathic pain relief from wearing the Voxx socks.
- Other home remedies and lighter-touch treatments include:
- Orthopedic shoes like these ones from: Orthofeet (available on Amazon)
- Splints like these, especially for carpal tunnel syndrome
- Practices to cope with pain like massages and meditation. I’m a huge fan of the Calm App if you haven’t tried it yet.
If none of the above help, then medications and cremes may be a person’s next line of attack. However, in some cases, like with protruding discs, often called pinched nerves, a surgery may be the best option.
It all comes down to a person’s individual situation, but hopefully one of the less invasive home-remedies will help.
If you have any questions on peripheral neuropathy, the socks, or other home remedies, don’t hesitate to reach out! And if you have neuropathy pain or it feels like your feet are burning, we hope you feel better soon! Let us know if you try the socks and how they work for you. (Voxx offers a money-back guarantee by the way).
Top Sources Referenced & For Further Reading: https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Fact-Sheets/Peripheral-Neuropathy-Fact-Sheet & https://www.foundationforpn.org/ & https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4398900/