Components of the nervous system have extremely complex yet vital functions in the body. For instance, the central nervous system (CNS), which includes the spinal cord and the brain, acts as both the information processing and command center of the body. Nerves in the peripheral nervous system, on the other hand, carry messages from the CNS to the rest of the body. Regardless of their function, nerves are susceptible to various disorders, including neuropathy and radiculopathy. The latter have similarities and differences worth noting.
The term neuropathy does not refer to a specific disease. Rather, it is a generic term that describes various disorders of the nervous system. Numerous categories of neuropathy exist, based on their clinical manifestations, as well as the location, function and specific types of the affected nerves. For instance, although the terms "neuropathy" and "peripheral neuropathy" are often used interchangeably, peripheral neuropathy actually refers to malfunctions of the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord. In contrast, radiculopathy is a disorder at or near the root of any nerve along the spine. Thus, radiculopathy is a type of neuropathy.
Medicine.net indicates that, although radiculopathy may occur in any area of the spine, lumbar and cervical radiculopathy are the most frequent manifestations of the disease. Lumbar radiculopathy affects nerves in the lower back, while cervical radiculopathy refers to disorders of nerves in the neck. Thoracic radiculopathy, which involves the middle portion of the spine, is less common, says Medicine.net. Radiculopathy may be associated with the following conditions: quadriplegia, or paralysis of all limbs and torso; paraplegia, or loss of function of the lower limbs; and sciatica, or sciatic nerve inflammation.
According to Robbins & Cotran Pathologic Basis of Disease, neuropathy may have a wide range of causes, including: traumatic injuries, tumors, toxins, certain drugs, inflammation, certain vitamin deficiencies, metabolic disorders, genetic defects, infections, auto-immune disorders, and systemic diseases, such as diabetes. Radiculopathy, on the other hand, generally results from nerve compression, irritation or inadequate blood supply. Possible causes include disk herniation, a bone spur from osteoarthritis, thickening ligaments, diabetes, tumor, infection and scoliosis, as well as degeneration or traumatic injury of the spine.
The most common symptoms for both neuropathy and radiculopathy are pain, numbness and tingling in the arms and/or legs. However, various symptoms may result from either disorder, depending on the nerves involved. Medicine.net notes, for instance, that radiculopathy patients are likely to experience the following: weakness, lower back pain that extends downward to a lower limb; middle back pain that spreads to the chest; or pain in fixed areas of the neck or back. In contrast, other types of neuropathy may become life-threatening, particularly when lung and heart function are affected.
Diagnostic procedures for neuropathy and radiculopathy are similar, according to Medicine.net. Indeed, the first steps in the detection of both disorders are a thorough medical history and physical examination. More specifically, neurological and muscular strength tests can reveal gross nerve malfunction. Imaging studies may then help locate the nerve involved, while tests of electrical activity are designed to help uncover specific nerve damage.
Medicine.net indicates that, in most cases, conservative options provide sufficient relief of radiculopathy symptoms within three months. Such options include avoiding strenuous movements of the neck and back; anti-inflammatory drugs; chiropractic or physical therapy. More severe cases may require epidural steroid injections, or even surgical intervention to release the compressed nerve.
Eliminating or controlling certain risk factors can help prevent neuropathy in general, and radiculopathy in particular. Controllable risk factors for neuropathy include exposure to environmental toxins, such as lead and arsenic; thiamine deficiency; deficiencies in vitamins B12, B6 and E; excessive alcohol consumption; and diabetes. Regarding radiculopathy, Medicine.net notes an increased risk with excessive strain on the spine, excessive weight and poor muscle conditioning.