Polyneuritis: the causes and treatments of this disease of the nervous system

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What is a polyneuropathy?

Polyneuritis (today, doctors speak more of “polyneuropathies”) are diseases that affect the nerves, that is to say the fibers that are responsible for transmitting orders (in the form of electrical impulses) of the system central nervous system to the different organs of the body – muscles, skin, heart, lungs … – and to collect information from these parts of the body.

There are many polyneuropathies, explains Dr. Jean-Pierre Balagué, neurologist. It is a word that covers several hundred pathologies, more or less disabling, more or less aggressive, more or less extensive.

However, polyneuritis (or polyneuropathies) have certain characteristics in common:

  • They cause neuropathic pain, that is to say sensations of tingling, burning, hot or cold, tingling …
  • They usually develop on both sides of the body (bilaterally, not unilaterally),
  • In the most serious forms, they can be responsible for paralysis and / or local anesthesia (an area of ​​the body that seems “asleep”),
  • They primarily affect the long and fragile nerves of the legs – with symptoms in the calves and / or feet.

In medical language, polyneuropathy / polyneuropathy is defined as “symmetrical and simultaneous damage to several nerves”.

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Polyneuritis (polyneuropathies): what are the causes?

While many polyneuritis / polyneuropathies do not have a clearly identified origin (we speak of “idiopathic polyneuropathy”), others can occur in connection with:

  • a cancerous tumor (in case of bronchopulmonary cancer, for example),
  • a viral, bacterial or parasitic infection (kidney or urinary tract infection, infection with HIV, cytomegalovirus or botulinum toxin, hepatitis B and C, Lyme disease, etc.),
  • a deficiency (especially in vitamins of group B),
  • a metabolic disease (such as diabetes or hypothyroidism)
  • a genetic disease (for example: Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease or CMT),
  • intoxication (alcohol, lead, mercury …).

To know. In Belgium, according to the Scientific Society of General Medicine, between 2% and 3% of the general population suffers from polyneuropathy / polyneuropathy – these pathologies can also affect children. About 8% of people aged 55 and over would be affected.

Polyneuropathy: focus on the most frequent polyneuropathies

  • Symmetric distal diabetic polyneuropathy

Between 10% and 25% of diabetic patients develop damage to the nerves that run through the legs. This complication of diabetes (because the hyperglycemia which characterizes this chronic disease also damages the nerves) is manifested by burning sensations, tingling and / or hypersensitivity, in particular in the feet and calves, in a symmetrical way. The pain is severe and often gets worse at night, preventing the diabetic patient from sleeping. In prevention, it is necessary to respect your anti-diabetic treatment.

  • Alcoholic polyneuropathy
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About 10% of patients who suffer from alcoholism develop alcoholic polyneuropathy. This nerve damage results directly from the toxicity of alcohol on the nervous system, but also from vitamin B1 deficiency, a consequence of chronic alcoholism.

Alcoholic polyneuropathy is characterized by pain and hypersensitivity of the lower limbs (legs, feet), with burning and tingling sensations that occur more at night. In particular, the patient may have a nighttime sensation of “burning feet”.

  • Guillain-Barré syndrome

Guillain-Barré syndrome (or acute inflammatory polyradiculoneuropathy in medical parlance) occurs when the immune system attacks the nerves that run through the body. Usually caused by a viral infection, this disease first results in muscle weakness or tingling sensations that usually start at the same time in the feet and hands and can spread all over the body.

The main complication is paralysis of the legs, arms or muscles of the face; in addition, in 20% to 30% of patients, there is damage to the chest muscles which makes breathing difficult. It is a rare disease that affects about 2.8 people per 100,000.

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Thanks to Dr. Jean-Pierre Balagué, neurologist at the Pont de Chaume clinic (Montauban – ELSAN group).

Sources :

Scientific Society of General Medicine

Swiss Medical Review – Nutritional and alcoholic neuropathies

World Health Organization (WHO)

Peripheral neuropathic pain: how to recognize the symptoms and what are the treatments?

What is neuropathy?

Neuropathic pain: a promising new analgesic

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