In medicine, a differential diagnosis is the process that a doctor uses to determine the specific causes of symptoms being experienced by his patient. Sometimes a certain set of symptoms can have many different causes and the process of determining those in that specific case can be a time-consuming and in-depth process.
Peripheral neuropathy symptoms, such as numbness and burning in the hands and feet, can have many different causes. When a patient presents himself with the symptoms, it is necessary for the doctor to determine which tests need to be performed in order to distinguish the underlying cause of those specific symptoms.
Since peripheral neuropathy is caused in a large amount of cases, approximately 1/3 of all cases in fact, by long-standing complications from diabetes, it would be prudent for the doctor to schedule a fasting blood glucose lab test is one of the first diagnostics.
Another cause of peripheral neuropathy is heavy metal poisoning from substances such as mercury, which is present in high quantities in large ocean fish such as blue fin tuna. With the recent rise in popularity of sushi and canned tuna, instances of peripheral neuropathy caused by mercury poisoning has risen dramatically over the last couple of decades. A blood test targeting levels of such toxins would be a way for a doctor to identify or eliminate that as a cause of the neuropathy.
This systematic approach to testing in either identifying or eliminating various known causes of the symptoms being experienced by the patient is a process that must take place in order to come to what is referred to as a differential diagnosis.
Why it is important to get a differential diagnosis for your neuropathy symptoms
Obtaining a differential diagnosis is critical to stemming the progression of the disease and beginning the healing process and regeneration of the damaged nerves, if possible. Once a patient understands what is causing his symptoms, he can take the necessary steps to eliminate the underlying cause of the disease.
For example, diabetic peripheral neuropathy is often first experienced by people who are unaware that they are in fact diabetic. The symptoms are often what motivates the patient to seek medical care and thus his high blood glucose levels are brought in to the light.
He can now take steps to improve his diet habits and nutrition, as well as his physical fitness which will have a direct affect on successfully controlling blood sugar. He has a definitive list of steps you can take to improve his condition, which is obviously very beneficial.
In about a third of all cases of neuropathy, no differential diagnosis can be made
Sometimes, a differential diagnosis for peripheral neuropathy may not be obtained even after lengthy and extensive testing. In about 30% of all cases of peripheral neuropathy, no diagnosis of the underlying cause of the disease can be determined.
This can be distressing for the patient who suffers from neuropathic pain and the deterioration in quality of life that it encapsulates. Without knowing exactly what is causing his symptoms, he cannot possibly know what to do or what to change in his lifestyle in order to alleviate his suffering.
So, a differential diagnosis is simply a specific determination of what is causing your peripheral neuropathy symptoms. If you can at least get a proper diagnosis, consider yourself lucky for that, even though you unfortunately are suffering from the terrible malaise and pain of neuropathy.