The human body is composed of a number of different organs and structures that collectively work together to maintain life. When a symptom arises, it is not always possible to identify the exact organ or structure where the problem is located. Is it from the skin, muscle, bone, blood vessel or nerve? A nerve problem affects a host of different processes and activities in the body. Sometimes the problem lies with the nerve but it can also lie in the organs between the nerves.
Problems with the nerves can therefore be very complex and is best assessed by a neurologist. It is important to have a basic understanding of nerves in order to understand how a nerve problem manifests. Nerves are essentially the communication lines in the body. It carries signals in the form of electrical impulses from one part of the body to another. Chemical messengers conduct the signals between nerves and between the nerves and end organs which it controls or provides feedback to.
Signs of Nerve Problems
The basic unit of a nerve is the neuron or nerve cell. Broadly there are two types of nerves – motor and sensory.
- Motor nerves carry impulses usually from the brain to the muscles and controls muscle contraction and relaxation.
- Sensory nerves carry signals from one part of the body to another thereby providing information to the brain.
- Mixed nerves have a combination of motor and sensory nerve fibers.
Problems with nerves will affect its function or give rise to unnecessary actions or sensations. So how do you know if you have a nerve problem? If you answer yes to at least one of these questions, then you may in fact have a nerve problem. But remember that it can also be a problem with the organ that detects and elicits the nerve impulse, the organ receiving the nerve impulse or the organ processing these nerve impulses (usually the brain).
- Are you experiencing pain, a burning sensation or tingling particularly if it extends over a distance?
- Have you found any partial or complete loss of sensation either in touch, vision, hearing, taste or smell?
- Do you suffer with muscle weakness, severe spasms, tremors or twitching?
- Are you unable to move part of your body at all (paralysis)?
- Is a muscle or a group of muscles shrinking?
- Have you experienced difficulty coordinating any movement or action?
- Are you unable to remember everyday information, cannot make decisions or solve problems logically?
Pain And Tingling
Pain and tingling are two sensations that may arise with a nerve problem. Pain is not an abnormal sensation – it is the body’s way of signaling damage to tissue. It is unpleasant but it has a purpose – to make a person react so as to remove the source of the tissue damage. In some diseases this may not be possible. Pain is a consequence of inflammation that is not under the voluntary control of the person. But even in this case, the pain signals tissue damage and tells you that all is not well. With a nerve problem, pain may exist despite there being no damage to tissue.
Instead the pain is a result of the nerve being damaged, dysfunctional or diseased and incorrectly relaying pain signals along its course. Often the pain is not isolated to a specific location with a nerve problem. Instead the pain may be felt along the course of the nerve. Similarly there may be other sensations that normally serve a purpose, but with a nerve problem it arises prematurely or unnecessarily. Prickling, burning and tingling sensations may be felt either at the site where the nerve problem exists or often along the length of the nerve.
Loss of Sensation
When sensory nerves are severely or completely compromised, sensation may be affected as is the case with a severed nerve. For the sense of touch, the loss of sensation is known as numbness. With vision it is known as blindness and hearing it is referred to as deafness. Complete loss of taste or smell is known as ageusia or anosmia respectively. But sometimes the sensation is only partially lost. So a person can feel, see, hear, taste and smell but not to the same intensity or level as would be considered normal.
A nerve problem may not be the only reason for this partial or complete loss of sensation. Sometimes it can be a mechanical problem. For example if light cannot enter the eye due to a cataract, vision will be cloudy, blurred or blindness can occur. Similarly if the eardrum or bones of the middle ear are not working properly then a person may be hard of hearing or completely deaf. But when all the other parts of the sensory organs are working, yet sensation is compromised then it is most likely a nerve problem.
Muscle Weakness, Spasm or Twitching
The motor nerves carry signals of different strengths to muscle to trigger contraction. Lack of these signals results in muscle relaxation. By contracting and relaxing several groups of muscles at a time, we are able to move different parts of our body. But these are the skeletal muscles that are under voluntary control. There is also extensive smooth muscles in the human body which are not under voluntary control and cannot be seen externally, like the muscles of the heart and bowels amongst others.
Be it voluntary or involuntary, the contraction or relaxation of any muscle is controlled by the signals carried through the nerves. Stronger impulses leads to stronger contractions. Weaker impulses lead to weaker contractions. When there is a nerve problem, the signals may be too weak and this is seen as muscle weakness. It is not that the muscle itself that is a problem in many instances but rather than the muscle is not getting the correct stimulation due to a nerve problem. And in some nerve problems, the muscles are overstimulated or repetitively stimulated leading to spasm, tremors or twitching.
Paralysis And Atrophy
Extensive nerve damage or dysfunction where signals cannot reach the muscles will lead to paralysis. This means that the muscle is not able to contract at all. Or the signal is so weak and the contraction so slight, that it has no effect. Paralysis is usually seen as the worst consequence of a nerve problem since it is often indicates an irreversible process, but not always. There are situations where paralysis is reversible once the root cause of the nerve problem is treated and corrected.
Atrophy is the term for shrinkage of an organ often due to inactivity or a poor blood supply. Muscle atrophy more accurately describes the shrinking of a muscle often as a result of inactivity. Even under normal circumstances, the muscles of our body will shrink to some degree if we do not use it as often or intensively. This is the reason why body builders have larger muscles – they use these muscles more extensively during weight training. But all muscles will maintain at least a minimum size in relation to its activity, even if you are not weight training. Muscle atrophy is therefore mainly seen with paralysis. In these cases, the lack of signals to the affected muscles means it is inactive and will subsequently shrink.
The body utilizes a vast array of its abilities to maintain coordination, even for a simple task like picking up a spoon. It requires receptors, sensory organs, muscles and the learned routines stored in the brain. But much of this would not be possible without properly functioning nerves. Therefore poor coordination may be a symptom of a nerve problem. The nature of the problem can be complicated – it could be an issue with fine motor control, recalling the process and movements to successfully coordinate an action or the sensory input needed for coordination.
All of these processes are controlled by nerves – be it the nerves within the brain centers responsible for coordination of movement, nerves carrying impulses to the muscles or nerves receiving sensory information and relaying it to the brain. But poor coordination is not always seen as a difficulty in completing a movement of a body part. Sometimes symptoms like hoarseness, slurred speech, abnormal bowel habit and irregular heart beat (arrhythmia) are all symptoms of poor coordination due to nerve problems.
Impaired Mental Faculties
The brain is essentially a massive collection of nerves interconnected to conduct various activities. There are nerves carrying signals to the brain from the sensory receptors and organs. There are nerves exiting the brain to control muscles and other types of organs in the body. A nerve problem arising in the brain may present with one or more of the symptoms mentioned above. But the brain is also responsible for various mental faculties – memory, reasoning, decision making and a host of other intricate mental processes.
When the nerves in these areas are compromised, the symptoms may not be immediately obvious. One of the first symptoms that is noticed is memory impairment. A person who is unable remember information that is not easily forgotten, like their own name, may be suffering with a nerve problem originating in the brain. Being unable to make decisions or use logic for problem solving are other signs of a brain problem. Unfortunately many of these symptoms are missed until it becomes so pronounced that loved ones take note of it.