Your nervous system has two parts: the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. The central nervous system includes the brain and the spinal cord. The peripheral nervous system is the network of nerves that branch out from the brain and spinal cord into other parts of the body. The peripheral nerves send information between the brain and other parts of the body to assist with feeling, movement and body functions, such as regulating heart rate. Peripheral neuropathy is a condition that occurs when there is damage to the peripheral nerves.
Cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation or surgery, can cause neuropathy. Here are a few more factors that can increase the chances of developing neuropathy:
- Being an older patient
- A family history of neuropathy
- Lack of nourishment
- Excessive use of alcohol
- Having a pre-existing medical condition like diabetes or thyroid problems
Neuropathy can begin any time after treatment starts, and it often gets worse as treatments go on. In most cases, people will first notice symptoms in the tips of the finger or toes and can progress over time. Neuropathy caused by chemotherapy may gradually improve after you complete treatment.
During treatment, tell your doctor if you experience any symptoms of peripheral neuropathy. If your peripheral neuropathy is caused by cancer treatment, your doctor may use smaller doses of the drug or stop treatment until your symptoms improve to prevent long-term nerve damage.
Neuropathy can affect your ability to do everyday things like walk, write, button your shirt, or pick up coins. It can also cause more serious problems like changes in your heart rate and blood pressure, trouble breathing, or even organ failure. The most common symptoms are:
- Stabbing pain or burning
- Tingling or numbness
- Trouble picking up things or holding things
- Muscle weakness or loss of balance
More severe forms of neuropathy can cause:
While there are currently no treatments to cure peripheral neuropathy, there are treatments that can help manage symptoms, including
- Physical therapy to improve balance and strength
- Occupational therapy to improve fine motor skills
- Taking safety measures to avoid injury, such as installing handrails and removing rugs and clutter
- Medication such as pain medications, antidepressants, anti-seizure medications, muscle relaxers or steroids to help relieve pain and discomfort
- Creams or patches of numbing medicine that can be put directly on painful areas
- Regular exercise. Talk with your doctor before starting an exercise program.
- Massage, acupuncture and relaxation techniques
- Dietary supplements such as a B12 vitamin and folic acid. Ask your doctor before taking any supplements.