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One common neurologic complication of cancer is peripheral neuropathy. This condition can cause numbness, pain, and tingling in certain areas of the body, particularly in your extremities (e.g., hands and feet). The Neuropathy Association estimates that about 20 million Americans suffer from 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). The peripheral nerves transmit information back and forth between the central nervous system and the rest of the body. Damage to the peripheral nerves interferes with these vital connections. It disrupts the body’s ability to communicate with its muscles, skin, joints, or internal organs. This can lead to changes in sensation, muscle function and coordination.
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), more than 100 types of peripheral neuropathy have been identified, each with its own set of symptoms, pattern of development, and prognosis. Peripheral neuropathy can be broadly categorized by the type of nerve (e.g., motor, sensory, or autonomic) that has been damaged.
Each nerve has a highly specialized function in a specific part of the body. Motor nerves are responsible for muscle tone and voluntary movement, such as walking, grasping things, or talking. Sensory nerves are responsible for sensing touch, pain, temperature, and position. Autonomic nerves are responsible for involuntary functions, such as breathing, blood pressure, digestion, and bowel and bladder functions.
Peripheral neuropathy may affect a single nerve or several. For example, in polyneuropathy, multiple nerves are affected in different areas of the body.
Symptoms of peripheral neuropathy vary from person to person, depending on the type and number of nerves that are damaged. Peripheral neuropathy symptoms usually start at the end of the extremity and gradually move upward. Thus, the areas of the body most commonly affected by peripheral neuropathy are the toes and fingers.
Peripheral neuropathy symptoms may be mild and come and go, or slowly progress over many years and become more severe. Depending on which nerves are affected, some potential symptoms of peripheral neuropathy may include the following:
There are many causes of neuropathy. The Neurological Association reports that diabetes is the most common cause of neuropathy, accounting for about 30 percent of cases in the United States. Some other causes that have been linked to peripheral neuropathy are as follows:
Peripheral neuropathy can be difficult to diagnose. A diagnosis of peripheral neuropathy may involve a medical history, physical and neurological examination, supporting laboratory tests, and other tests of muscle strength, function, posture, and coordination.
Cancer-related peripheral neuropathy may develop during the course of cancer treatment, or shortly after. It may also progress slowly and develop months or even years after treatment is complete. Each individual’s experience of peripheral neuropathy is different. Some patients notice mild tingling. Others experience burning pain, numbness and weakness. These unpleasant sensations can occur in response to touch, temperature, or with no stimulus at all.
Moreover, peripheral neuropathy can be an upsetting complication of cancer. It can make daily activities, such as walking, standing, picking up objects, and buttoning clothing difficult. In addition, pain and weakness from neuropathy can affect your emotional well being and overall quality of life. Thus, it is important to find ways to manage peripheral neuropathy.
One way to manage peripheral neuropathy is to treat the underlying cause. For chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy, most interventions are supportive, 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.
Another way to manage peripheral neuropathy is to control painful symptoms. Many types of medications may help to relieve neuropathic pain, including analgesics as well as some anti-seizure medications and antidepressants. A nerve block (e.g., an injection of an anesthetic agent directly near a nerve) may also be used to treat pain.
In addition, adopting a healthy lifestyle, including a well-balanced diet and rehabilitation exercises, may also help to reduce the symptoms of peripheral neuropathy.
Depending on the type of nerve damage involved, some peripheral neuropathies can improve and heal over time if the underlying cause is removed. As long as the nerve cell itself has not been destroyed, peripheral nerves usually have the ability to regenerate.
While recovery from peripheral neuropathy tends to be slow, steps can be taken to encourage regeneration of the damaged nerves. And, even if symptoms do not completely go away, you may be able to find therapies to help manage peripheral neuropathy.
NOTE: THIS INFORMATION IS NOT INTENDED NOR IMPLIED TO BE A SUBSTITUTE FOR PROFESSIONAL MEDICAL ADVICE. YOU SHOULD ALWAYS REPORT ANY SYMPTOMS OF PERIPHERAL NEUROPATHY TO YOUR PHYSICIAN IMMEDIATELY.
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 HEALTHCARE PROVIDER REGARDING PERIPHERAL NEUROPATHY.
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