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Neuropathy (new-RAH-path-ee) is damage to the nerves other than the nerves of the central nervous system ("peripheral neuropathy") or problems with nerve function. Most people first notice symptoms such as a tingling in their hands or feet or an inability to tolerate cold, usually starting with the fingertips and toes. Sometimes, the tingling and pain move up the fingers to the hands or from the toes to the feet. (For additional symptoms, click here.)

Pain medications and other techniques such as exercise can help with symptoms. There is no known cure for neuropathy. 

If neuropathy is caused by chemotherapy, it is usually only short term. Tell your doctor immediately if you begin to experience any nerve or muscle symptoms. Symptoms can worsen and become quite painful if left untreated. Your doctor might want to reduce the amount of chemo or stop it all together for awhile. Your doctor may also offer you medication to ease neuropathy symptoms.

For a small percentage of people, neuropathy can continue for years, and sometimes for life.

There are techniques that have helped people manage neuropathy. For example, if balance is a problem, do what you can to avoid falling, such as hold onto hand rails. For additional tips about coping with neuropathy, click here.

Support groups are an excellent place to find information and get emotional support. To find a support group of people with peripheral neuropathy in your area, see the web site of The Neuropathy Association offsite link

NOTE: Tell your doctor about any nerve or muscle symptoms right away. They can worsen and become quite painful if left untreated. 

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Common Symptoms Of Peripheral Neuropathy

Common symptoms of peripheral neuropathy include the following:

  • In your hands or feet, you may feel:
    • Tingling 
    • Burning 
    • Weakness and/or
    • Numbness.
    • Sudden, sharp, stabbing, or electric shock pain sensations.
    • Loss of sensation of touch.
    • Cold.
  • Loss of balance or difficulty walking.
  • Clumsiness.
  • Trouble picking up objects or buttoning clothes.
  • Hearing loss.
  • Pain.
  • Constipation.
  • Jaw pain
  • Changes in vision

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Treatments For Neuropathy

Treatments for neuropathy include:

  • Medications
    • Topical creams
    • Pain patches
  • Use of a device referred to as a Scrambler Therapy which interferes with pain signal transmission by ''mixing'' ''non-pain'' information into the nerve fibres. 
  • Acupuncture
  • Physical therapy
  • Exercise

Neuropathy Caused By Diabetes

The first line of treatment for neuropathy caused by diabetes is to bring down the blood glucose (sugar) levels. If that doesn't work, your doctor may have a medication for you to consider.

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How To Cope With Neuropathy

If the feeling in your hands has changed

  • Be careful when handling sharp objects such as knives and scissors.
  • When checking water temperature, avoid being burned by using a thermometer and gloves instead of your bare hand. 
  • If you can, lower the hot water temperature at your hot water heater.
  • In the kitchen, keep in mind that anything that can become dangerously hot can become a danger. Wear protective hot oven mitts.
  • Consider obtaining products designed to help people with arthritis perform everyday tasks. For example, see:

If your feet or legs are weak and you have balance problems 

  • Avoid falling by:
    • Walk slowly.
    • Hold onto hand rails.
    • Put no slip bath mats in your tub or shower.
    • Remove area rugs or cords you could trip over.
    • Steady yourself when you walk by using a cane or other device.
    • Wear tennis shoes or other footwear with rubber soles.
    • If possible, improve lighting.
    • Allow yourself time to rest.
  • In the car, if you have lost sensation in your feet, remove your shoes when you drive in order to feel the pedals better.
  • Aerobic exercise can be difficult, especially if your foot drops. Toes hitting first can cause you to fall. Walking fast feels uncomfortable. Consider:
    • Use a stationary bicycle or an elliptical trainer at the gym (or buy one for your home). With both a bicycle and an elliptical trainer, you don't have to lift your feet at all. You plant your feet on the foot pad-pedals and off you go. There are handlebars on a bike to keep you steady. An elliptical trainer has side rails to hold onto "just in case."  
    • Swim. If you get muscle cramps from cold water, look for a pool with warmer water.

If you have pain

Read our article about Pain. Keeping yourself busy with activities that take your total attention can help you forget about the pain.
If your hands are numb and grasping and handling materials is difficult  

  • Ask your doctor for a prescription for occupational therapy (OT). OT is covered by health insurance, both types of Medicare and Medicaid.
  • Be very careful when handling objects that are sharp, hot, or otherwise dangerous.

If you have balance problems, weakness in your legs and similar problems 

  • Move carefully 
  • Use handrails on stairs
  • Use a bath mat in the tub or shower.
  • Ask your doctor for a prescription for physical therapy. The exercises physical therapists teach can be very helpful both short and long-term. Physical thearpy is covered by health insurance, both types of Medicare and Medicaid.

If you have muscle cramps

A muscle cramp is an involuntary contraction (tightening) of the muscle. There are drugs to help with muscle cramps. One of the drugs that has been used in the past, quinine, has been shown to have serious risks. To learn more about quinine, see the American Academy of Neurology offsite linkAsk your doctor about what treatment is best for you. 

Additional tips for dealing with neuropathy

For additional tips about coping with neuropathy, see Numb Toes And Aching Soles: Coping With Peripheral Neuropathy by John A. Senneff (Medpress, 1999). Senneff wrote the book after suffering from neuropathy and looking for answers. Less expensive used copies are available from online booksellers such as Barnes and Noble offsite link.

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