Peripheral neuropathy may be one of the most common conditions you've never heard of-and it is indeed common. Estimates are that it affects as many as two-thirds of people with diabetes, 10% to 20% of people with cancer and 8% of all people over age 55. One reason may be that neuropathy is not an isolated medical condition. Rather, it results from other medical problems including vitamin deficiencies, autoimmune disorders and heavy metal exposure, in addition to diabetes and cancer. Symptoms generally come on gradually over a period of weeks or even months, starting in the toes and sometimes the fingers. They include burning and tingling sensations, numbness, and occasional sharp, sudden pains similar to electrical shocks. Intensity of symptoms varies widely, from mild annoyance... to numbness severe enough to impair function... to debilitating pain
Mainstream medical doctors often treat peripheral neuropathy with pharmaceutical drugs, but they all have serious side effects, including dizziness, sleepiness, dry mouth, blurred vision, weight gain, nausea, headache and in serious cases, allergic reaction and confusion, among others.
Given the problems with pharmaceuticals, it's good to be aware about natural approaches to the problem. The first step is to find the root cause and correct it as much as possible. For example, people with diabetes must control blood sugar levels to help slow further peripheral neuropathy development. People who suspect vitamin deficiencies should see a holistic physician for blood level tests and to help them establish a healthy diet and vitamin protocol. They must also avoid or greatly reduce alcohol consumption. Those having chemotherapy should alert the supervising doctor immediately if numbness or tingling starts in their feet or hands. The doctor may be able to alter the drugs somewhat to keep the neuropathy from escalating. However, when chemo-related peripheral neuropathy begins weeks or even months after completion of chemotherapy-as is often the case-the next step is to seek treatment to alleviate the discomfort and possibly help reduce or even heal it. This advice holds true for other causes of peripheral neuropathy as well, although you should check with your doctor to be sure it is appropriate for you.
The natural substance with the longest record for helping both diabetic peripheral neuropathy and chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy is alpha-lipoic acid, a powerful antioxidant that scavenges many harmful free radicals. (Note: Alpha-lipoic acid can reduce blood sugar levels, so your doctor should monitor your medication and blood sugar for the duration.) It's not a quick solution however-you should wait eight to 12 weeks before assessing results. The other natural substance I recommend is acetyl-L-carnitine, which has a regenerative effect on the nerves. Again, stay on acetyl-L-carnitine therapy for eight to 12 weeks to assess its efficacy. To further reduce nerve irritation, I often prescribe a B complex including B-12, as well as vitamins E and C, selenium and pycnogenol, a plant derived substance that has antioxidant, anti inflammatory and other powerful properties. Injections or sublingual doses of vitamins B-12 and B-1, which you can get from your doctor, are also helpful.
Acupuncture is an increasingly popular treatment for peripheral neuropathy, in particular that caused by chemotherapy. Yi Hung Chan, LAc, DPM, is a staff member at the Bendheim Integrative Medicine Center of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Dr. Chan treats many neuropathy patients, some of whom are still in chemo and others who develop peripheral neuropathy after chemo completion. To attain the greatest relief, he recommends starting acupuncture treatment at the first sign of symptoms-early intervention helps to avoid full-blown neuropathy and may reverse symptoms. In his clinical practice, Dr. Chan has found that about 80% of patients show substantial improvement after eight to 12 sessions of treatment.
Patients start acupuncture with one to two appointments per week. Those still in chemotherapy continue acupuncture sessions for about six weeks after completion of cancer treatment and taper off from there. When peripheral neuropathy begins post-chemo, Dr. Chan recommends one to two sessions per week for six or so months with occasional follow-up sessions after that. Although Dr. Chan's experience is mostly with chemo-related peripheral neuropathy, he notes that in a small study of seven individuals with diabetes, done at Harvard in 2007, acupuncture eased their neuropathy pain as well.
All people with peripheral neuropathy should maintain a healthy lifestyle and keep their weight normal to lessen pressure on the feet. A regular practice of meditation, yoga or any other calming technique helps provide relaxation when neuropathy flares. Other ways to increase comfort are to keep the feet warm, wear soft-leather shoes with good support, and sleep with light blankets to avoid pressure on sensitive feet. Though some people are unable to obtain full relief from peripheral neuropathy, there is fortunately much you can do to make it bearable.