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Michael Rubin

, MDCM, New York Presbyterian Hospital-Cornell Medical Center

Last full review/revision Dec 2020| Content last modified Dec 2020
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A polyneuropathy is a diffuse peripheral nerve disorder that is not confined to the distribution of a single nerve or a single limb and typically is relatively symmetrical bilaterally. Electrodiagnostic tests should always be done to classify the nerve structures involved, distribution, and severity of the disorder and thus help identify the cause. Treatment is directed toward correcting the cause.

Some polyneuropathies affect primarily motor fibers. They include

  • Immune-mediated disorders (eg, Guillain-Barré syndrome, multifocal motor neuropathy with conduction block)

  • Lead toxicity

  • Dapsone use

  • Porphyria

  • Spinal muscular atrophy (a motor neuron disorder that mimics motor polyneuropathy)

Others affect primarily sensory fibers. They include

Some disorders can also affect cranial nerves. They include

Certain drugs and toxins can affect sensory or motor fibers or both (see table Toxic Causes of Neuropathies).


Toxic Causes of Polyneuropathies

Type of Neuropathy


Axonal motor

With prolonged exposure, lead, mercury

Axonal sensorimotor

Acrylamide, alcohol (ethanol), allyl chloride, arsenic, cadmium, carbon disulfide, chlorphenoxy compounds, ciguatoxin, colchicine, cyanide, dapsone, disulfiram, DMAPN, ethylene oxide, lithium, methyl bromide, nitrofurantoin, organophosphates, PCBs, PNU, podophyllin, saxitoxin, Spanish toxic oil, taxol, tetrodotoxin, thallium, trichloroethylene, TOCP, vinca alkaloids

Axonal sensory

Almitrine, bortezomib, chloramphenicol, dioxin, doxorubicin, ethambutol, ethionamide, etoposide, gemcitabine, glutethimide, hydralazine, ifosfamide, interferon alfa, isoniazid, lead, metronidazole, misonidazole, nitrous oxide, nucleosides (didanosine [ddI], stavudine [d4T], zalcitabine [ddC]), phenytoin, platinum analogs, propafenone, pyridoxine, statins, thalidomide


Buckthorn, immune checkpoint inhibitors, chloroquine, diphtheria, hexachlorophene, muzolimine, perhexiline, procainamide, tacrolimus tellurium, zimeldine


Amiodarone, ethylene glycol, gold, hexacarbons, n-hexane, sodium cyanate, suramin

DMAPN = dimethylaminopropionitrile; PCBs = polychlorinated biphenyls; PNU = N-3 pyridylmethyl-N´-p-nitrophenyl urea; TOCP = triorthocresyl phosphate.

Symptoms and Signs of Polyneuropathy

Symptoms of polyneuropathy may appear suddenly or develop slowly and become chronic depending on the cause. Because pathophysiology and symptoms are related, polyneuropathies are often classified by area of dysfunction:

  • Myelin

  • Vasa nervorum

  • Axon

Polyneuropathies may be acquired or inherited.

Myelin dysfunction

Myelin dysfunction (demyelinating) polyneuropathies most often result from a parainfectious immune response triggered by encapsulated bacteria (eg, Campylobacter sp), viruses (eg, enteric or influenza viruses, HIV), or vaccines (eg, influenza vaccine). Presumably, antigens in these agents cross-react with antigens in the peripheral nervous system, causing an immune response (cellular, humoral, or both) that culminates in varying degrees of myelin dysfunction.

In acute cases (eg, in Guillain-Barré syndrome), rapidly progressive weakness and respiratory failure may develop. In chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), symptoms may recur or progress over months and years.

Myelin dysfunction usually results in large-fiber sensory disturbances (paresthesias), significant muscle weakness greater than expected for degree of atrophy, and greatly diminished reflexes. Trunk musculature and cranial nerves may be involved. Demyelination typically occurs along the entire length of a nerve, causing proximal and distal symptoms. There may be side-to-side asymmetries, and the upper body may be affected before the lower body, or vice versa. Muscle bulk and tone are relatively preserved.

Vasa nervorum compromise

Chronic arteriosclerotic ischemia, vasculitis, infections, and hypercoagulable states can compromise the vascular supply to nerves, causing nerve infarction.

Usually, small-fiber sensory and motor dysfunction occurs first. Patients typically have painful, often burning sensory disturbances. Pain and temperature sensation are deficient.

Vasa nervorum involvement (eg, caused by vasculitis or infections) can begin as multiple mononeuropathies, which, when many nerves are affected bilaterally, can look like polyneuropathy. Abnormalities tend to be asymmetric early in the disorder and rarely affect the proximal one third of the limb or trunk muscles. Cranial nerve involvement is rare, except in diabetes, which commonly affects the 3rd cranial (oculomotor) nerve and, slightly less commonly, the 6th cranial (abducens) nerve. Later, if nerve lesions coalesce, symptoms and signs may appear symmetric.

Dysautonomia and skin changes (eg, atrophic, shiny skin) sometimes occur.

Muscle weakness tends to be proportional to atrophy, and reflexes are rarely lost completely.


Axonopathies tend to be distal; they may be symmetric or asymmetric.

Symmetric axonopathies result most often from toxic-metabolic disorders. Common causes include the following:

Axonopathy may result from nutritional deficiencies (most commonly, of thiamin, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, or vitamin E) or from excess intake of vitamin B6 or alcohol. Less common metabolic causes include hypothyroidism, porphyria, sarcoidosis, and amyloidosis. Other causes include certain infections (eg, Lyme disease), drugs (eg, nitrous oxide), and exposure to certain chemicals (eg, Agent Orange, n-hexane) or heavy metals (eg, lead, arsenic, mercury).

In a paraneoplastic syndrome associated with small-cell lung cancer, loss of dorsal root ganglia and their sensory axons results in subacute sensory neuropathy.

Primary axon dysfunction may begin with symptoms of large- or small-fiber dysfunction or both. Usually, the resulting neuropathy has a distal symmetric, stocking-glove distribution; it evenly affects the lower extremities before the upper extremities and progresses symmetrically from distal to proximal areas.

Asymmetric axonopathy can result from parainfectious or vascular disorders.

Diagnosis of Polyneuropathy

  • Electrodiagnostic tests

  • Laboratory tests, determined by suspected type of neuropathy

Polyneuropathy is suspected in patients with diffuse or multifocal sensory deficits, weakness without hyperreflexia, or both. However, if findings are relatively diffuse but began asymmetrically, the cause may be multiple mononeuropathy. Clinicians must ask patients for a thorough description of symptom onset to determine whether symptoms began symmetrically or asymmetrically. For example, patients should be asked whether symptoms appeared in both feet at about the same time (symmetrically) or appeared in one foot, then one hand, then the other foot (asymmetrically).

Pearls & Pitfalls

  • If findings are consistent with polyneuropathy, try to determine whether symptoms began asymmetrically (possibly suggesting multiple mononeuropathy).

Clinical findings, particularly tempo of onset, help clinicians diagnose and identify the cause of polyneuropathy, as in the following:

  • Asymmetric neuropathies suggest vasculitis.

  • Symmetric, distal neuropathies suggest toxic or metabolic causes.

  • Slowly progressive, chronic neuropathies tend to be inherited or due to long-term toxic exposure or metabolic disorders.

  • Acute neuropathies suggest an autoimmune cause, vasculitis, a toxin, an infection, or a postinfectious cause or possibly a drug or cancer.

  • Rash, skin ulcers, and Raynaud syndrome in patients with an asymmetric axonal neuropathy suggest a hypercoagulable state or parainfectious or autoimmune vasculitis.

  • Weight loss, fever, lymphadenopathy, and mass lesions suggest a tumor or paraneoplastic syndrome.

Axonopathies should be considered in all patients with polyneuropathy.

Electrodiagnostic tests

Regardless of clinical findings, electromyography (EMG) and nerve conduction studies are necessary to classify the type of neuropathy and help clinicians tailor laboratory tests based on possible causes. At a minimum, EMG of both lower extremities should be done to assess for asymmetry and full extent of axon loss.

Because nerve conduction studies assess primarily large myelinated fibers in distal limb segments, they may be normal, except for prolonged F wave responses,in patients with proximal myelin dysfunction (eg, early in Guillain-Barré syndrome) and in patients with primarily small-fiber dysfunction. In such cases, quantitative sensory or autonomic testing, done at specialized testing centers, or skin punch biopsy may be done depending on the presenting symptoms.

Laboratory tests

Baseline laboratory tests for all patients include

  • Complete blood count

  • Electrolytes

  • Renal function tests

  • Rapid plasma reagin test

  • Measurement of fasting plasma glucose, glycosylated hemoglobin (HbA1C), and sometimes a 2-hour glucose tolerance test

  • Vitamin B12 and folate levels

  • Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) level

Some clinicians include serum protein electrophoresis, especially if patients have a painful sensory neuropathy not explained by diabetes. The need for other tests is determined by polyneuropathy subtype (large- or small-fiber). When EMG and clinical differentiation are inconclusive, tests for all subtypes may be necessary.

For acute myelin dysfunction neuropathies, the approach is the same as that for Guillain-Barré syndrome; forced vital capacity is measured to check for incipient respiratory failure. In acute or chronic myelin dysfunction, tests for infectious disorders and immune dysfunction, including tests for hepatitis and HIV and serum protein electrophoresis, are done. A lumbar puncture should also be done; myelin dysfunction due to an autoimmune response often causes albuminocytologic dissociation: increased cerebrospinal fluid protein (> 45 mg%) but normal white blood cell count ( 5/mcL).

For vasa nervorum compromise or asymmetric axonal polyneuropathies, tests for hypercoagulable states and parainfectious or autoimmune vasculitis, particularly if suggested by clinical findings, should be done; the minimum is

  • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate

  • Serum protein electrophoresis

  • Measurement of rheumatoid factor, antinuclear antibodies, and serum creatine kinase (CK)

CK may be elevated when rapid onset of disease results in muscle injury.

Other tests depend on the suspected cause:

  • Coagulation studies (eg, protein C, protein S, antithrombin III, anticardiolipin antibody, and homocysteine levels) should be done only if personal or family history suggests a hypercoagulable state.

  • Tests for sarcoidosis, hepatitis C, or granulomatosis with polyangiitis (formerly known as Wegener granulomatosis) should be done only if symptoms and signs suggest one of these disorders.

  • If no cause is identified, nerve and muscle biopsy should be done.

An affected sural nerve is usually biopsied. A muscle adjacent to the biopsied sural nerve or a quadriceps, biceps brachii, or deltoid muscle may be biopsied. The muscle should be one with moderate weakness that has not been tested by needle EMG (to avoid misinterpretation of needle artifacts). An abnormality is more often detected when the contralateral muscle has EMG abnormalities, particularly when the neuropathy is somewhat symmetric. Nerve biopsies are useful in symmetric and asymmetric polyneuropathies but are particularly useful in asymmetric axonopathies.

If initial tests do not identify the cause of distal symmetric axonopathies, blood levels may be measured or a 24-hour urine collection may be done to check for heavy metals. Hairs or nails may be tested and may confirm heavy metals as the cause.

Whether tests for other causes are needed depends on history and physical examination findings.

Treatment of Polyneuropathy

  • Treatment directed at the cause

  • Supportive care

Treatment of polyneuropathy focuses on correcting the causes when possible; a causative drug or toxin can be eliminated, or a dietary deficiency can be corrected. Although these actions may halt progression and lessen symptoms, recovery is slow and may be incomplete.

If the cause cannot be corrected, treatment focuses on minimizing disability and pain. Physical and occupational therapists can recommend useful assistive devices. Tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline or antiseizure drugs such as gabapentin are useful for relief of neuropathic pain (eg, diabetic burning feet).

For myelin dysfunction polyneuropathies, immune system–modifying treatments are usually used:

  • Plasma exchange or IV immune globulin for acute myelin dysfunction

  • Plasma exchange or IV immune globulin, corticosteroids, and/or antimetabolite drugs for chronic myelin dysfunction

Key Points

  • Suspect polyneuropathy if patients have diffuse sensory deficits, weakness without hyperreflexia, or both.

  • Use clinical findings, particularly time course and progression and distribution of sensory and/or motor deficits, to classify polyneuropathies and identify possible causes.

  • Do electromyography and nerve conduction studies in all patients with polyneuropathy and tailor laboratory evaluation to possible causes.

  • Treat the cause of polyneuropathy.

  • Give immune–system modifying treatments (IVIG, plasma exchange, corticosteroids, antimetabolites) to treat myelin dysfunction polyneuropathies.

  • Treat neuropathic pain with tricyclic antidepressants or antiseizure drugs; minimize disability by providing physical and occupational therapy.

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