What is Peripheral Neuropathy?

Peripheral neuropathy can cause burning or pain in the feet and legs

Is Peripheral Neuropathy the Same as PAD?

When you talk with your doctor about diabetes, you may hear a variety of medical terms, including peripheral artery disease (PAD) and peripheral neuropathy.

It’s easy to confuse these “peripheral conditions” because both cause burning or painful discomfort in the feet or legs. As you advocate for your or a loved one’s health, you want to know the correct diagnosis and term. That way you can do additional research and know the right type of doctor for a second opinion.

So what is the difference between these two serious conditions?

What is peripheral neuropathy?

Your peripheral nervous system is the critical connection between your central nervous system and the rest of your body. Peripheral nerves tell you how you feel — cold, hot, tingly, prickly, numb or weak. But what happens if these nerves are damaged or destroyed?

Peripheral neuropathy is a disease that results from diminished or malfunctioning peripheral nerves. According to Johns Hopkins, “Some people inherit the disorder from their parents. Others develop it because of an injury or another disorder,” which can include chemotherapy, infections, traumatic injuries and more. However, diabetes is one of the most common causes.45

Peripheral neuropathy can mask PAD symptoms and delay diagnosis, according to Harvard Health Pubhlishing. Women are particularly at risk as they are less likely to report pain.

Know the symptoms  

Estimates show that neuropathy will affect about 25% to 30% of Americans. The condition affects people of all ages; however, older people are at increased risk. About 8% of adults over 65 years of age report some degree of neuropathy, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

The most common peripheral neuropathy symptoms include:

  • Gradual onset of numbness and weakness in legs
  • Constant or shooting/stabbing pain
  • Changes in sensation — from an inability to feel pain, pressure, temperature or touch to extreme sensitivity to touch and severe pain, especially at night
  • Pain during casual activities
  • Tripping, stumbling, lack of coordination and balance problems
  • Muscle weakness and atrophy

What is PAD?

While peripheral neuropathy is a nervous system condition, PAD is a condition of the arteries. It’s characterized by narrowed, hardened arteries in the legs, limiting blood flow to the legs and feet.

Common risk factors for PAD are increasing age, diabetes, kidney disease and smoking. PAD has a range of general symptoms:

  • Cold toes or feet
  • Dry, discolored skin
  • Pain while walking
  • Nighttime leg pain
  • Painful, heavy legs
  • Numbness or burning sensations
  • Wounds that won’t heal
  • Gangrene or black tissue

Peripheral neuropathy can mask PAD symptoms and delay diagnosis, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Talk to your primary care physician (PCP) if you’re having recurring pain. Describe the pain in detail to help get a proper diagnosis.

You want to diagnose PAD or peripheral artery disease as soon as possible. Early detection gives your doctor more treatment options and prevent the conditions from getting worse.

Use Take a Stand Against Amputation’s Symptom Quiz and Find a Doctor tool if you’re experiencing symptoms that may be related to PAD.