If you have been diagnosed with AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), you need to know about the effects that AIDS can have on your nervous system. AIDS can damage both parts of the nervous system, which are:
- The central nervous system (CNS). This consists of your brain and spinal cord.
- The peripheral nervous system (PNS). This includes the nerves that go out to your body parts and return signals to your brain and spinal cord.
How can AIDS affect my brain, spinal cord, and nerves?
The virus that causes AIDS (HIV, human immunodeficiency virus) does not directly invade the cells of your nervous system. However, it causes inflammation and can lead to conditions that directly affect the nervous system and result in:
- Damage to your brain and spinal cord (CNS).
- Damage to the nerves that go to and from your brain and spinal cord (PNS).
Other possible causes of nervous system damage include:
- Medicines that you take to treat AIDS.
- Infections and cancers that are more common in people who have AIDS.
What are the signs and symptoms of nervous system damage?
Signs and symptoms of nervous system damage depend on where the damage is and what caused it. Damage to your PNS is called peripheral neuropathy.
- Signs and symptoms of peripheral neuropathy include:
- Burning or tingling.
- Increased sensation.
- Signs and symptoms of CNS damage include:
- Sudden or gradual weakness.
- Slurred speech or loss of vision.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Clumsiness and loss of balance.
- Fevers and neck stiffness.
- Inability to think clearly or quickly (cognitive dysfunction).
- Changes in behaviour.
- Anxiety or depression.
How are these nervous system problems treated?
There is not one single treatment for neurological problems. Treatment depends on the type of problem and its cause. Treatment may include:
- High doses of AIDS medicines (anti-retroviral therapy) may help to reduce many neurological problems.
- Antibiotics to treat infections.
- Chemotherapy to treat cancers that are caused by AIDS or occur with AIDS.
- Strong anti-inflammatory medicines (corticosteroids).
- Pain medicine, including over-the-counter and prescription-strength medicines.
- Mental health medicines, including antidepressants, stimulants, and sedatives.
- Talk therapy with a mental health professional.
- Physical therapy to treat weakness and balance problems.
It is also important to:
- Take over-the-counter and prescription medicines only as told by your healthcare provider.
- Tell your healthcare provider if you develop changes in your thinking, behaviour, or movement.
- Keep all follow-up visits as told by your healthcare provider. This is important.
- AIDS can affect many systems in the body, including the nervous system. This system includes the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system, CNS) and the nerves that go out to your body parts and return signals to your CNS (peripheral nervous system, PNS).
- AIDS usually causes injury by allowing infections or cancers to develop in the brain, spine, or nerves. Some medicines that are used to treat AIDS can also cause injury to the nervous system.
- Neurological problems of AIDS are treated in many ways, including using AIDS medicines, pain medicines, antibiotics, or chemotherapy.
- If you believe you have a neurological problem related to AIDS, contact your health care provider immediately. Some of these problems are serious or life-threatening and require immediate treatment.
This information is not intended to replace advice given to you by your healthcare provider. Make sure you discuss any questions you have with your healthcare provider.
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Gonzalez-Perez M.P., Peters P.J., O'Connell O., et. al.: Identification of emerging macrophage-Tropic HIV-1 R5 variants in brain tissue of AIDS patients without severe neurological complications. J Virol 2017; 91:
Nightingale S., Winston A., Letendre S., et. al.: Controversies in HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders. Lancet Neurol 2014; 13: pp. 1139-1151.
Sacktor N., Skolasky R.L., Seaberg E., et. al.: Prevalence of HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders in the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study. Neurology 2016; 86: pp. 334-340.
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