The epidemiology and risk factors of chronic polyneuropathy

Eur J Epidemiol. 2016 Jan;31(1):5-20. doi: 10.1007/s10654-015-0094-6. Epub 2015 Dec 23.


Polyneuropathy is a disabling condition of the peripheral nerves, characterized by symmetrical distal numbness and paresthesia, often accompanied with pain and weakness. Although the disease is often encountered in neurological clinics and is well known by physicians, incidence and prevalence rates are not well known. We searched EMBASE, Medline, Web-of-science, Cochrane, PubMed Publisher, and Google Scholar, for population-based studies investigating the prevalence of polyneuropathy and its risk factors. Out of 5119 papers, we identified 29 eligible studies, consisting of 11 door-to-door survey studies, 7 case-control studies and 11 cohort/database studies. Prevalence of polyneuropathy across these studies varies substantially. This can partly be explained by differences in assessment protocols and study populations. The overall prevalence of polyneuropathy in the general population seems around 1% and rises to up to 7% in the elderly. Polyneuropathy seemed more common in Western countries than in developing countries and there are indications that females are more often affected than males. Risk factor profiles differ across countries. In developing countries communicable diseases, like leprosy, are more common causes of neuropathy, whereas in Western countries especially diabetes, alcohol overconsumption, cytostatic drugs and cardiovascular disease are more commonly associated with polyneuropathy. In all studies a substantial proportion of polyneuropathy cases (20-30%) remains idiopathic. Most of these studies have been performed over 15 years ago. More recent evidence suggests that the prevalence of polyneuropathy in the general population has increased over the years. Future research is necessary to confirm this increase in prevalence and to identify new and potentially modifiable risk factors.

Keywords: Epidemiology; Idiopathic polyneuropathy; Incidence; Neuropathy; Polyneuropathy; Prevalence.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Chronic Disease / epidemiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Male
  • Polyneuropathies / diagnosis
  • Polyneuropathies / epidemiology*
  • Polyneuropathies / etiology
  • Prevalence
  • Risk Factors
  • Sex Factors