Autoimmune Disease & Peripheral Neuropathy

Peripheral Neuropathy is a common complaint among autoimmune patients. Image courtesy of the Southern Regional Pain Services.

Did you know that autoimmune disease can cause debilitating nerve pain and other nervous system difficulties?

Many medical professionals are unaware that autoimmune conditions can cause a variety of neurological symptoms, or neuropathies, in patients. Though it is commonly known that autoimmune diseases are responsible for joint pain and other kinds of inflammation, nerve pain is often overlooked.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, peripheral neuropathy refers to conditions that involve damage to the peripheral nervous system, which is the vast communication network that sends signals between the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) and other parts of the body. Research has shown that over 20 million Americans suffer from some form of peripheral neuropathy, of which there are over 100 known unique types!

How can autoimmune disease cause peripheral neuropathy?

Systemic autoimmune diseases that impact the entire body can cause peripheral neuropathy because of the impact these diseases have on one’s nerves. Conditions like Type 1 diabetes, lupus, Sjogren’s syndrome, and rheumatoid arthritis can all cause nerves to become compressed or entrapped as a result of inflamed surrounding tissues.

Some autoimmune diseases aren’t systemic, or body-wide, but rather, target the nervous system directly. For example, in autoimmune conditions like Guillain-Barre, multiple sclerosis (MS) and chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), the immune system may go after the motor nerves, motor fibers, or the myelin sheath coating the nerves. In other instances, the small fibers are attacked, resulting in ongoing chronic pain.

How does peripheral neuropathy manifest?

Peripheral neuropathies can manifest for different people in different ways. For example, rather than a sharp, jabbing, throbbing pain, for some patients it may feel more like prickling, tingling, burning, numbness, or even a complete loss of sensation.

According to the Mayo Clinic, peripheral neuropathy can also make you feel like you’re having a sensation that you’re not; for example, feeling like you’re wearing gloves or socks when you’re not. Peripheral neuropathies can also cause you to feel pain for activities that you know shouldn’t cause pain, such as pain in your feet after they’re underneath a blanket.

What you can do about your autoimmune nerve pain

Medical Interventions

If you have autoimmune nerve pain, don’t suffer in silence. Talk to your primary care physician and see if they can refer you to a neurologist or chronic pain specialist. From there, your physician can help put together a treatment plan to ease your pain.

I have Sjogren’s syndrome and for a period of 7+ years, chronic pain was a regular part of my life. My rheumatologist prescribed me all kinds of joint pain medications, from plaquenil (generic name: hydroxychloroquine) an anti-malarial drug, to prescription-strength nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), steroid medications, and even chemotherapies! It wasn’t until my pain was identified as nerve pain, not joint pain, that I was able to switch to a medication that worked to reduce my peripheral neuropathy.

In addition, I worked with a neurologist to determine that I had a co-morbid condition, called benign fasciculation syndrome, which was also contributing to my pain. This is important, because many chronic pain sufferers have co-morbidities, like fibromyalgia, which can increase your pain levels or even be the real driving force behind it.

Lifestyle Considerations

Beyond medications, your lifestyle is also an important component of reducing your neuropathic pain. Vitamin deficiencies, for example, have been identified as a cause of peripheral neuropathies. This is because certain B vitamins, including vitamins B1, B6 and B12, as well as vitamin E and niacin, are crucial for maintaining nerve health. Since alcoholism can result in serve vitamin deficiencies, avoiding substance abuse is also key.

Exposure to certain toxins or poisonous substances, such as lead and mercury, can also impact your nerves and cause resulting pain. Finally, trauma and pressure on the nerves can cause neuropathies as well, so alleviating pressure on your nerves, such as decreasing repeated motions on the parts of your body experiencing pain, is important.

Do you have an autoimmune condition(s) and suffer from peripheral neuropathy? What do you do to cope with your chronic pain? Let us know in the comments below!

10 Facts About Sjögren’s Syndrome

According to the Sjögren’s Syndrome Foundation (SSF), Sjögren’s is a systemic autoimmune disease that impacts the entire body, including the eyes, mouth, joints, nerves and major organs. In honor of World Sjögren’s Day, read on to learn 10 facts about this chronic autoimmune condition.

1. It is more common than you think

The SSF estimates that there are as many as 4 million Americans living with the disease, and it’s the second most common autoimmune condition. The exact prevalence of the condition is difficult to determine, however, since the symptoms tend to mimic those of other conditions, such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. It can even be confused with menopause, allergies, and drug side effects.

2. It mostly affects women

The SSF states that nine out of 10 Sjögren’s patients are women, and the average age of diagnosis is the late 40s. However, the disease can impact anyone of any age, including men and children as well.

3. It causes extensive dryness

Sjögren’s Syndrome develops as a result of the body’s immune system attacking and destroying the body’s exocrine, or moisture-producing, glands. As a consequence, patients experience widespread dryness throughout their body, but especially impacting their eyes, nose, mouth, skin, vagina and joints.

4. It affects the eyes

The disease is often first detected as a result of eye-related symptoms. This includes dry, gritty eyes that feel like sandpaper when blinking and swollen tear glands. Dry eyes can in turn lead to blurred vision, infections, corneal ulcerations and blepharitis. Several of the eye tests that can be used to help diagnose the condition include a Schirmer test, to measure tear production, and a Rose Bengal and Lissamine Green test, to examine dry spots on the eye’s surface.

5. It affects the mouth, throat and nose

Sjögren’s also affects one’s mouth, throat and nasal cavity; the main symptom being dryness. This, in turn, leads to a whole host of other symptoms, such as mouth sores, dental decay, oral thrush (a yeast infection of the mouth), recurrent sinusitis, nose bleeds, heartburn, reflux esophagitis, and difficulty speaking and swallowing. Some physicians administer a lip gland biopsy as a part of the diagnosis process.

6. It impacts one’s joints too

As the immune system destroys the body’s moisture-producing glands, this results in a decrease in synovial fluid, which helps to keep the joints lubricated. This causes inflammatory joint pain and musculoskeletal pain, and can even lead to the development of rheumatoid arthritis, as shown through a positive Rheumatoid Factor (RF) reading in the blood. In fact, the main physicians who treat Sjögren’s are rheumatologists.

7. Neurological problems are also common

Sjögren’s causes a variety of nervous system symptoms, including nerve pain and peripheral neuropathy (a numbness and tingling in the extremities). Other neurological problems include difficulty concentrating and memory loss, often referred to as “brain fog”.

8. The prognosis of the disease varies

Patients may find that their symptoms plateau, worsen, or, uncommonly, go into remission. A French research study published in Rheumatology also found that early onset primary Sjögren’s Syndrome carried a worse prognosis over the course of the disease (‘early onset’ is defined as a diagnosis before age 35). While some Sjögren’s patients experience mild discomfort, others suffer debilitating symptoms that greatly impair their quality of life.

9. It can increase one’s risk of cancer

A German study found that Sjögren’s Syndrome moderately increases one’s risk of developing Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (NHL). NHL is a cancer of the lymphatic system, which includes the lymph nodes, spleen, and other tissues. The lifetime risk of developing NHL by age 80 is 8% among men and 5.4% among women with Sjögren’s. This is compared to a risk of 1.6% of men and 1.1% of women in the general population.

10. There is hope

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with Sjögren’s, check out the SSF’s video series, Conquering Sjögren’s, and their patient-published Self-Help Booklet. The foundation’s website, www.sjogrens.org, also contains a wealth of resources on the disease, including information about treatment options, survival tips, fact sheets, and even template letters for your health insurance company. You can also check out their extensive network of support groups.

Thank you for stopping by Autoimmune Warrior. If this article was informative to you, please like, share, and comment below!

Related blog posts: