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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 managed.

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:

  • Tingling

  • Prickly pain

  • Sharp, stabbing pain

  • Burning feeling

  • Numbness

  • Weakness

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 cold

  • 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 or weak

  • Tripping, stumbling, or balance problems

  • Numbness that makes it hard to tell if you are hurt

  • Trouble walking

  • 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:

  • Medicine in a patch or cream to put on your skin

  • Antidepressant medicine

  • Antiseizure medicine

  • Opioid medicine such as codeine or morphine for severe pain

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 shower.

  • 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.

Online Medical Reviewer: Kimberly Stump-Sutliff RN MSN AOCNS
Online Medical Reviewer: Lu Cunningham
Online Medical Reviewer: Richard LoCicero MD
Date Last Reviewed: 2/1/2019
© 2021 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.
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