Cancer Treatment Centers of America

Nerve damage

Cancer and nerve damage (peripheral neuropathy)

One common neurologic complication of cancer is peripheral neuropathy. Peripheral neuropathy is a term used to describe damage to the peripheral nerves, or the nerves located outside of the brain and spinal cord (i.e., the central nervous system).

Peripheral neuropathy can be broadly categorized by the type of nerve (e.g., motor, sensory, or autonomic) that has been damaged. This condition can cause numbness, pain and/or tingling in certain areas of the body, particularly in your extremities (e.g., hands and feet). It can lead to changes in sensation, muscle function and coordination.

One way to manage peripheral neuropathy is to treat the underlying cause. For chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy, most interventions are designed to improve symptoms and function. To prevent the neuropathy from worsening, your doctor may reduce your chemotherapy dosage or switch to a different drug. Your doctor may also prescribe medications to help to relieve neuropathic pain, such as analgesics and topical treatments (e.g., lidocaine patches). A nerve block (e.g., an injection of an anesthetic agent directly near a nerve) may also be used to treat pain.

Tips for coping with peripheral neuropathy

  • Work with your doctor for proper pain control.
  • Inspect the skin on your hands and feet daily for any signs of blisters, sores or cuts.
  • Use a thermometer to check that your bathwater/dishwater temperature is below 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Use potholders while cooking, rubber gloves when washing dishes, and shield your fingers while cutting foods.
  • When driving, make sure you can fully feel the gas and brake pedals and steering wheel. You should be able to quickly move your foot from the gas to the brake.
  • Keep all rooms, hallways and stairways in your home well lit. Use a night light in your bedroom to light your path if you need to use the bathroom during the night.
  • Install handrails on both sides of stairways and cover your stairs with a non-slip surface or safety treads.
  • Install grab bars in the shower or handgrips in the bathtub, and lay down skid-free mats.
  • Remove small rugs and any other clutter in your home that could cause you to fall.
  • Use lightweight, non-breakable glasses, utensils, plates and pans.
  • Use assistive devices, such as a cane or walker, orthopedic shoes, splints or braces.
  • If you have difficulty dressing, use button hooks, ring and zipper pulls, in-step supports for slippers and shoes, and cuff and collar extenders.
  • A long-handled reacher can help you retrieve items on high shelves and pick up objects that fall to the floor.
  • Maintain a healthy, well-balanced diet.
  • Get a massage, which may help to improve circulation and decrease pain.
  • Visit a rehabilitation therapist, who can help you strengthen muscles that are weak, reduce cramps and pain, and improve coordination and balance.
  • Try acupuncture, which may help to restore balance and control pain and other symptoms.
  • Share your feelings with others (e.g., family, friends, support groups).

NOTE: This information is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to making decisions about your treatment.