Physical Therapy For Peripheral Neuropathy

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Neuropathy is not a single disease - instead, it is a complication found in a number of different underlying medical conditions. It can also be seen without the cause being diagnosed, when doctors called it "idiopathic."

The term neuropathy is short for peripheral neuropathy, meaning nerve damage in the peripheral nervous system. Only nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord are involved, so peripheral neuropathy does not include nerve damage in the central nervous system.

This Medical News Today information page will give you the essential details about neuropathy - describe what it is and what causes it, who gets the problem and the symptoms they have, how it is diagnosed, and offer an overview of treatment options for people with neuropathy.

You will also see introductions at the end of some sections to any recent developments that have been covered by MNT's news stories. Also look out for links to information about related conditions.

What is neuropathy?

Neuropathy - also known as peripheral neuropathy, polyneuropathy (to signify that it typically affects more than one nerve) and also simply as nerve pain - is a complication found in a number of different underlying conditions. When the underlying cause has not been diagnosed, doctors call it idiopathic neuropathy.

Neuropathy means damage to nerves in the peripheral nervous system, and so affects nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord - it does not include nerve damage in the central nervous system.1

Three main types of nerve can be involved in peripheral neuropathy:1

  • Autonomic nerves (not under conscious control, "automatic" or "involuntary" nerves)
  • Motor nerves
  • Sensory nerves.

Autonomic nerves regulate the automatic functions of the body - for example, heart rate and blood pressure, sweating, and so on. Motor nerves control the muscles of the body and are under our conscious control. And sensory nerves pass sensations from a part of the body to the brain, including information about cold, heat and pain.

People often describe the pain of neuropathy as being a tingling or burning sensation. They also often describe a loss of sensation similar to what it would be like wearing a thin stocking or glove.2 There is more detail under Signs and symptoms below.

What causes neuropathy?

Physical trauma, repetitive injury, infection, metabolic problems and exposure to toxins and some drugs can all lead to peripheral neuropathy.


Most cases of neuropathy are found in people who have the metabolic disorder diabetes,2 when it is known simply as diabetic neuropathy.

Diabetic neuropathy is a microvascular complication: excess blood glucose in people with diabetes can, over a number of years, injure the walls of tiny blood vessels supplying nerves, especially those in the legs.3 The consequence of the nerve damage can be an inability to feel pain, and so problems can go unnoticed by people with diabetes, for example because of "insensate" injury to their feet.4

In the US, diabetic neuropathy is the primary cause of diabetic foot problems and ulcers.5 Specific estimates vary, but overall about half of people with diabetes have diabetic neuropathy.6

Other conditions

While diabetes is the most common cause of neuropathy, other medical conditions can also lead to the problem:

  • Chronic liver disease
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • HIV infection and AIDS
  • Long-term excessive alcohol intake
  • Vitamin B deficiency and other nutritional deficiency
  • Cancer - lymphoma or multiple myeloma
  • Lyme disease, a tick-borne bacterial infection
  • Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a genetic cause of nerve damage, particularly in the lower limbs
  • Guillain-Barr√© syndrome, a rare condition that damages peripheral nerves
  • Diphtheria, a common bacterial infection in developing countries such as Haiti and Vietnam, but rare in other parts of the world.

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