Treating Peripheral Neuropathy with Acupuncture: An Integrative Approach to Cancer Care

by Antonia Balfour, L.Ac., Dipl.Ac. & C.H.

Peripheral neuropathy is a term used to describe damage to the peripheral nervous system. The peripheral nerves are located outside the brain and spinal cord. These nerves carry information back and forth between the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and the rest of the body.

Symptoms

Symptoms of peripheral neuropathy vary depending on the type of nerve affected and where the nerve is located.
The most common cases of peripheral neuropathy affect the sensory nerves. This causes a feeling of numbness or tingling (which many describe as a pins and needle feeling) in the feet, legs and possibly the hands. Some people experience a burning or freezing feeling in the toes or fingers. Others are unable to sense hot or cold at all. Some will feel as if they are wearing an invisible glove or sock or are extremely sensitive to touch.

Peripheral neuropathy may also affect the autonomic nerves that communicate with internal organs. In this case, symptoms may include constipation, dizziness, bladder problems such as incontinence or urine retention, and sexual dysfunction.
Motor nerves may also be affected. Patients may experience tiredness, problems with balance and coordination, or symptoms of muscle weakness or heaviness. Motor nerve neuropathy can also cause muscle cramps, spasms, or tremors.

Peripheral Neuropathy & Cancer

Researchers estimate that 10% to 20% of people with cancer will develop peripheral neuropathy. Symptoms may develop during cancer treatment, or they may progress slowly, developing months or even years after treatment.

Neuropathy symptoms can be caused by an actual tumor pressing on a nerve or growing into a nerve. More often, certain chemotherapy, particularly in high doses, can injure peripheral nerves. Symptoms may worsen with each additional dose of chemotherapy. They are strongest immediately after a chemo treatment, and generally lessen in severity just before the next treatment. Radiation therapy may also injure nerves, although in this case symptoms usually build more gradually. Neuropathy can also be the result of surgeries, such as operations on the lung or breast.

Treatment with Acupuncture

Clinical research shows treatment with acupuncture results in improved nerve conduction in patients with peripheral neuropathy. (1, 2)

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, the basis of acupuncture is a vital energy force called “Qi” (pronounced “chee”). Qi and blood travel through the body along pathways known as meridians. In cases of peripheral neuropathy, most often the Qi and blood are too weak and deficient to reach the extremities leading to numbness, tingling, and lack of sensation. There can also be a blockage along the affected meridian(s) causing the Qi and blood to become stuck. Pain occurs when there is marked obstruction in the meridians. Very often, deficiencies and blockages occur at the same time.

An acupuncturist’s job is to determine whether deficiencies or blockages are occurring, and which meridians are affected. Acupuncture additionally balances the opposing forces of yin and yang, and treats emotional as well as physical symptoms.

Since Western Medicine does not acknowledge the existence of Qi, Yin, and Yang, modern scientists are currently using neuro-imaging and other high-tech tools to understand how acupuncture works. (3) Modern research acknowledges that acupuncture has several mechanisms of action. These include stimulating blood flow and tissue repair, and sending nerve signals to the brain that regulate the perception of pain. (4) Acupuncture has shown to affect changes in the limbic system (the emotional part of the brain), and to reboot the autonomic nervous system, which governs unconscious functions such as heart-beat, respiration, and digestion.

Although patient response to acupuncture varies, some degree of relief is often immediate in cases where there is pain. It typically takes a series of treatments for feeling and strength to return and for the body to come back in balance. The frequency and duration of treatment is individual, depending on the cause of the neuropathy, the length of time the symptoms have occurred, and the overall constitution and health of the patient.

Acupuncture may be done with electrical stimulation, and many practitioners will also recommend relaxation techniques to help decrease pain and reduce mental stress.

Additional Treatment

In addition to acupuncture, many Integrative Oncologists recommend the use of vitamins, particularly B-complex vitamins. Studies also show Alpha-Lipoic acid to benefit peripheral neuropathy. Chinese herbal formulas are also used to address specific symptoms of neuropathy. It is essential to discuss all vitamins, supplements, and herbs with one’s oncologist.

In some cases of peripheral neuropathy, patients become less sensitive to temperature. In this situation, be careful to protect hands and feet from temperature extremes. Be sure that water in the sink or shower is not too hot, and that gloves and socks are worn outside in cold weather.

Regular exercise (20-30 minutes/day) is recommended. Safe and gentle exercises that are well tolerated by most people include Tai Chi, walking, swimming, and biking on a recumbent bike.

In Conclusion

Cases of peripheral neuropathy vary in intensity from mildly annoying to completely debilitating. Regardless of the severity or duration of symptoms, acupuncture is a safe and effective modality that can bring complete healing and restore an overall sense of wellness.