Numbness and peripheral neuropathy

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science

This page was updated on April 21, 2022.

Peripheral neuropathy is a common neurological side effect of cancer and its treatment, especially chemotherapy and other anti-cancer drugs. Because this condition results from peripheral nerve damage, it often causes numbness and other symptoms, particularly in the extremities.

Neuropathy symptoms

Neuropathy may cause numbness, tingling or a pins-and-needles sensation. It may also lead to pain, cramps, discomfort or particularly warm or cold feelings in certain body areas, often the hands or feet.

What causes neuropathy?

In some instances, neuropathy and the resulting numbness are caused by the cancer itself. Cancers that may lead to numbness include:

  • A tumor of the cerebrum, which controls sensation and movement
  • A spinal cord tumor which may cause numbness on both sides of the body and cause coordination impairments in the arms and/or legs
  • Myeloma, which may produce abnormal proteins that damage nerves and bring about numbness in the legs
  • Prostate cancer, which may cause numbness in the feet and legs from tumors pressing on the spinal cord
  • Acute lymphocytic leukemia, which may cause facial numbness, a possible sign that the cancer has spread to the brain and spinal cord
  • Advanced-stage lung cancer, which may cause limb numbness if it spreads to the brain

Other cancer-related causes of neuropathy may include infections that affect the nerves, tumors that press against nerves and treatments like chemotherapy, radiation therapy or surgery.

Chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy

When chemotherapy is the cause of neuropathy, it's referred to as chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy, which affects up to 68 percent of patients during the first month after starting chemotherapy. Because it often affects the limbs, some people refer to this sensation as "chemo hands" or "chemo feet."

Neuropathy treatment

Several supportive care therapies target peripheral neuropathy, extremity numbness and related complications to improve quality of life and help patients avoid treatment delays or interruptions.

Physical therapy for neuropathy

Oncology rehabilitation therapists use physical and occupational therapies in an effort to sensitize nerve endings by retraining them to respond normally to stimulation.

Physical therapy techniques for peripheral neuropathy may include a combination of strength training, balance exercises, flexibility work and aerobic exercises, depending on the patient's capabilities, the location of the neuropathy and the patient's other health conditions.

Occupational therapy for neuropathy

Occupational therapists educate patients about safety and awareness of numb body parts to help them avoid injuries while completing everyday tasks. Recommendations for adaptive equipment, such as a walker, cane or shower chair, may also help reduce patients’ fall risk if their feet are numb.

Learn more about oncology rehabilitation

Neuropathy pain management

Pain management physicians may recommend over-the-counter medications for mild pain-related numbness, while more severe neuropathic pain may require prescribed painkillers and/or topical treatments. Nerve blocks or implanted pain pumps may also help address the underlying issues that cause numbness. In many cancer specialty hospitals, the care team works with other supportive care clinicians to develop a detailed treatment plan personalized for each patient.

Learn more about pain management

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