Diagnosing neuropathy is often difficult because the symptoms are highly variable. A thorough neurological examination is usually required and involves taking an extensive patient history (including the patient’s symptoms, work environment, social habits, exposure to any toxins, history of alcoholism, risk of HIV or other infectious disease, and family history of neurological disease), performing tests that may identify the cause of the neuropathic disorder, and conducting tests to determine the extent and type of nerve damage.
A general physical examination and related tests may reveal the presence of a systemic disease causing nerve damage. Blood tests can detect diabetes, vitamin deficiencies, liver or kidney dysfunction, other metabolic disorders, and signs of abnormal immune system activity. An examination of cerebrospinal fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord can reveal abnormal antibodies associated with neuropathy. More specialized tests may reveal other blood or cardiovascular diseases, connective tissue disorders, or malignancies. Tests of muscle strength, as well as evidence of cramps or fasciculations, indicate motor fiber involvement. Evaluation of a patient’s ability to register vibration, light touch, body position, temperature, and pain reveals sensory nerve damage and may indicate whether small or large sensory nerve fibers are affected.
Based on the results of the neurological exam, physical exam, patient history, and any previous screening or testing, additional testing may be ordered to help determine the nature and extent of the neuropathy.
Computed tomography, or CT scan, is a noninvasive, painless process used to produce rapid, clear two-dimensional images of organs, bones, and tissues. X-rays are passed through the body at various angles and are detected by a computerized scanner. The data is processed and displayed as cross-sectional images, or "slices," of the internal structure of the body or organ. Neurological CT scans can detect bone and vascular irregularities, certain brain tumors and cysts, herniated disks, encephalitis, spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal), and other disorders.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can examine muscle quality and size, detect any fatty replacement of muscle tissue, and determine whether a nerve fiber has sustained compression damage. The MRI equipment creates a strong magnetic field around the body. Radio waves are then passed through the body to trigger a resonance signal that can be detected at different angles within the body. A computer processes this resonance into either a three-dimensional picture or a two-dimensional "slice" of the scanned area.
Electromyography (EMG) involves inserting a fine needle into a muscle to compare the amount of electrical activity present when muscles are at rest and when they contract. EMG tests can help differentiate between muscle and nerve disorders.
Nerve conduction velocity (NCV) tests can precisely measure the degree of damage in larger nerve fibers, revealing whether symptoms are being caused by degeneration of the myelin sheath or the axon. During this test, a probe electrically stimulates a nerve fiber, which responds by generating its own electrical impulse. An electrode placed further along the nerve’s pathway measures the speed of impulse transmission along the axon. Slow transmission rates and impulse blockage tend to indicate damage to the myelin sheath, while a reduction in the strength of impulses is a sign of axonal degeneration.
Nerve biopsy involves removing and examining a sample of nerve tissue, most often from the lower leg. Although this test can provide valuable information about the degree of nerve damage, it is an invasive procedure that is difficult to perform and may itself cause neuropathic side effects. Many experts do not believe that a biopsy is always needed for diagnosis.
Skin biopsy is a test in which doctors remove a thin skin sample and examine nerve fiber endings. This test offers some unique advantages over NCV tests and nerve biopsy. Unlike NCV, it can reveal damage present in smaller fibers; in contrast to conventional nerve biopsy, skin biopsy is less invasive, has fewer side effects, and is easier to perform.