Peripheral neuropathy

How does peripheral neuropathy affect cancer patients?

Typically developing in the feet, legs, arms and hands, peripheral neuropathy may be caused by a number of cancer treatments, including radiation therapy and certain chemotherapy drugs. Tumors that press on nerves can also cause peripheral neuropathy, which occurs when peripheral nerves send disruptive sensations to the area of the brain that controls limb movement.

Signs of peripheral neuropathy vary depending on the nerves involved. Symptoms include:

  • Numbness
  • Shooting or stabbing pain
  • Burning
  • Tingling
  • Muscle weakness
  • Balance disruptions
  • Loss of fine-motor skills
  • Difficulty picking up small objects
  • Constant or random pain
  • Sensitivity to cold or heat
  • Limited reflexes
  • Lack of mobility

How likely are cancer patients to experience peripheral neuropathy?

The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society estimates that peripheral neuropathy affects 10 percent to 20 percent of cancers patients.

A 2014 study published in the Journal of Hematology Oncology Pharmacy found that up to 70 percent of patients experience some level of peripheral neuropathy after chemotherapy.

A 2014 study published by the Journal of Clinical Oncology concluded that the signs and symptoms of peripheral neuropathy may continue to develop and progress for two to six months after treatment—a protracted reaction known as “coasting.”

How may integrative care help?

A combination of integrative care therapies may help to manage and lessen the effects of peripheral neuropathy, especially when the plan is personalized for the patient based on his or her needs and symptoms.

The supportive care services that may be recommended include:

Oncology rehabilitation

The wide range of therapies used in oncology rehabilitation may help patients with peripheral neuropathy. Physical and occupational therapy exercises, particularly techniques that promote mobility, stability and range of motion, may counteract symptoms and improve patients’ ability to perform everyday tasks. Oncology rehabilitation clinicians help patients understand limitations that may result from their condition, employing safety techniques that protect them from hot surfaces, sharp objects or loss of balance, for example. Physical therapy’s balance training exercises train patients on three levels: visual, vestibular (equilibrium) and proprioceptive (sensory perception). Recommendations for adaptive equipment, such as the use of a walker, cane or shower chair, may offer additional benefits.

Learn more about oncology rehabilitation

Pain management

Pain management physicians may recommend over-the-counter medications for mild pain, while prescribed analgesics or painkillers and/or topical treatments may help manage more severe neuropathic pain. Nerve blocks or implanted pain pumps may also help.

Learn more about pain management