Life After Cancer: Peripheral Neuropathy
The peripheral nervous system is the
term for all the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord. (The nerves within the brain and
spinal cord are called the central nervous system, or CNS). The peripheral nerves carry
information back and forth between the CNS and the rest of the body. Peripheral neuropathy
is caused by damage to these nerves. It's a common problem, most often caused by
chemotherapy. Peripheral neuropathy can cause pain, numbness, tingling, burning, and other
problems around the body.
Peripheral neuropathy may last for
only a short time after cancer treatment. It can get better as nerves heal over time. For
some people, it can last months or years. It depends on how much chemotherapy you had and
the type you had. It can also depend on where the tumor was and the type of radiation or
surgery that was done. Other health conditions such as diabetes or thyroid problems have
been linked to peripheral neuropathy, too. Long-term peripheral neuropathy needs to be
What causes peripheral neuropathy after cancer?
Sometimes tumors press on and
damage nerves. Surgery and radiation therapy can cause nerve damage that leads to
peripheral neuropathy. But the most common cause is chemotherapy. Many kinds of chemo
medicines can damage nerves, especially at high doses. It often starts during treatment.
Symptoms of peripheral neuropathy after cancer
Symptoms vary depending on which
nerves are damaged. The most common symptoms include:
Sharp, stabbing pain
Symptoms often start in your
fingers and toes and then move into your hands and feet. Over time, they may move up
into your ankles, legs, and arms. The symptoms may feel worse when you touch something,
or wear gloves or shoes.
Other symptoms may include:
More sensitivity to cold,
heat, and touch
Trouble sensing heat and
Tingling, burning, or both,
or even pain
Trouble using your fingers,
such as problems texting or buttoning a shirt
Arms and leg that feel heavy
Tripping, stumbling, or
Numbness that makes it hard
to tell if you are hurt
Changes in organ function. For example, you may have
constipation if the nerves that control your bowels were damaged.
Treatment for peripheral neuropathy
Peripheral neuropathy can't be
cured, but treatment can help. Treatment may include medicines that can lessen nerve
pain, such as:
Other kinds of treatment include:
Transcutaneous electric nerve
stimulation (TENS). This is a type of therapy that uses mild electric
currents to help relieve some kinds of pain. You can buy a TENS unit at a
pharmacy, but talk with your healthcare provider first.
Acupuncture. This type of therapy uses very thin needles placed in certain areas of the skin. The needles are left in for up to 30 minutes and then removed. This can help relieve pain all over the body. Check with your healthcare provider to be sure it's safe for you to do this and to find a trained acupuncture therapist.
Hypnotherapy. A trained therapist can help you reach a state of relaxation that helps relieve pain.
Guided imagery. This type of therapy helps you create images in your mind to help lessen feelings of pain. You can do it at home or work. Many books and websites have instructions for how to do guided imagery.
Physical therapy. For this treatment, you work with a trained therapist to make parts of your body stronger.
Occupational therapy. This
type of therapy focuses on how to help you do activities of daily living. These
include bathing, dressing, cooking, and other tasks.
Living with peripheral neuropathy
If you have peripheral neuropathy, you will need to take good care of yourself. For example:
Don't drink or limit alcohol.
It can worsen nerve damage.
Watch your blood sugar. If
you have diabetes, make sure your blood sugar is under control. High blood sugar
can make nerve damage worse.
Avoid hot or cold temperatures.
Take lukewarm baths and showers. Dress for the weather to prevent heat or cold
from affecting your symptoms. Wear gloves in cold weather.
Eat well. Try to eat low-fat
meats and dairy products. Focus on vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
Nerve damage means you are less
likely to feel injury, and you may take longer to recover from it. You'll need to take
extra steps to protect yourself from injury. For example:
Check your feet daily for injury. Don't walk around barefoot. Make sure to wear shoes that fit well. Check for blisters, cuts, or other problems every day.
Make sure your home is safe.
Put nonslip pads under rugs. Lower the setting on your hot water heater to
help prevent burns.
Prevent falls. Use a walker
or cane if needed for balance. Put hand rails and nonskid mats in the tub or
Be careful with sharp things. Wear gloves to protect your hands when you clean, garden, or cook.
Make sure you are safe to
drive. Check that you can fully feel the pedals and steering wheel. Make
sure you can apply enough pressure on the brakes and can make quick movements when
steering if needed.
Working with your healthcare providers
Make sure to talk with your
healthcare providers if you need help. Tell them if symptoms get worse or if you have
new symptoms. Also let them know if you're having trouble with daily tasks. They can
help you find ways to manage peripheral neuropathy so you can do the things you need and
want to do.