How leprosy damages the nerves and causes deformity?

After affecting the skin, the infection spreads and affects the bone and soft tissue underneath that region causing deformity.

Leprosy, nerve damage, deformity, leprosy treatment, health news,
With early diagnosis, prevention and treatment, leprosy can be eliminated.(File)

By Dr. Akhil Goel

Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease is a condition that affects many parts of the body including the nerves, eyes, nose, and skin. It is a disease that takes a long time to show any symptoms. A person may take anywhere from about one year to even two decades to start showing symptoms of the disease after catching the infection.

Because of these reasons, many people do not get diagnosed with leprosy on time and suffer long-term consequences such as deformity and disability. The bacteria, Mycobacterium leprae spreads through air particles when an infected person sneezes or coughs. Once, it reaches the bloodstream, the bacteria and other inflammatory cells invade the peripheral nerve trunks causing neuritis.

Neuritis is the general inflammation of a nerve or the peripheral nervous system. It causes pain and tenderness, numbness, impaired motion ability, heightened sensitivity, and abnormal blood circulation. In some cases, this whole process can be asymptomatic with little to no effects being felt by the patient. In other cases, this can cause sharp burning pain or numbness.

The loss of adequate blood supply through the nerve causes the hair follicles and connected glands to become inefficient and die. It can also cause dry skin, cracking in the skin, or the formation of ulcers. After affecting the skin, the infection spreads and affects the bone and soft tissue underneath that region causing deformity. When this is ignored and the correct treatment is not taken, the infection spreads further to other bones and causes long-term complications and disability.

Leprosy affects the eye in two ways- by directly infecting the eye or the face, or by the infected branches of the facial nerves reaching to the eye. This causes an inability to close the eyes properly, inflammation in the cornea, and drying of the eyes that further causes cataracts and ulcers, and other eye diseases. The long-term effects of these complications can cause lifetime blindness.

In the hands, there is involvement of many nerves that helps to move the arm such as the ulnar nerve that helps to move the forearm, or the median nerve that helps with the forearm, wrist, hands, and fingers. When these nerves get infected, they cause numbness and paralysis in the hand, leading to claw hand deformity. Damage to the nerves leads to a poor autonomic nervous system that further breeds infection and impacts the fingers and the hands. Another nerve, known as the radial nerve, helps to move the elbow, and more is not infected in most cases. But when it is infected, it leads to extensor paralysis which makes it difficult to lift or hold anything.

Foot drop is caused frequently when the fibular nerve or the nerve branches get caught with the infection. It causes numbness and foot drop which makes it difficult to lift the foot and walk. The formation of ulcers and deformity occurs if the front and back parts of the leg are involved. With early diagnosis, prevention and treatment, leprosy can be eliminated.

(The author is a Consultant Immunology and Rheumatology, Manipal Hospitals, Jaipur. The article is for informational purposes only. Please consult medical experts and health professionals before starting any therapy, medication and/or remedy. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the

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First published on: 01-02-2023 at 09:00 IST