Neuropathies associated with excessive exposure to lead

Ruth M Thomson, Gareth J Parry
Muscle & Nerve 2006, 33 (6): 732-41
Exposure to lead is a ubiquitous problem of the modern era. The majority of cases of all forms of lead intoxication, especially lead neuropathy, result from industrial exposure. In the Western world meticulous monitoring in industry has reduced the risk of overt lead neuropathy. The classic form of lead neuropathy consists of weakness that primarily involves the wrist and finger extensors but which later spreads to other muscles. There is only minimal sensory involvement. Less commonly, there is a more typical toxic neuropathy with distally accentuated sensory and motor involvement. The motor neuropathy is more likely to develop following relatively short-term exposure to high lead concentrations and evolves in a subacute fashion. Prognosis for recovery is good as long as exposure is terminated promptly. The distal sensory and motor neuropathy develops after many years of exposure, evolves more slowly, and recovery is less certain. There is a generally weak relationship between the development of lead neuropathy and blood lead levels, at least for the subacute motor neuropathy, leading to speculation that the metabolic basis for the neuropathy is interference with porphyrin metabolism. Lead intoxication in humans causes axonal degeneration, but in some other species it causes a primarily demyelinating neuropathy. It should be possible to prevent lead neuropathy by good industrial hygiene. Close monitoring should identify excessive lead exposure before it causes overt neuropathy. If evidence of excessive exposure is found or if overt neuropathy develops, exposure must be terminated immediately. The role of chelation therapy in the treatment of lead neuropathy is controversial.

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