Neuropathy

Updated 
August 31, 2015

Neuropathyinfo-icon is the medical term used to describe pain or discomfort caused by damage to the body’s peripheral nervous system. The peripheral nervous system includes the nerves that control movement and sensations in the arms and legs. It is a possible side effectinfo-icon of some breast cancer treatments.

What Does Neuropathy Feel Like?

Signs and symptoms of neuropathyinfo-icon include numbness, pain, burning, tingling or loss of feeling in your hands or feet. Symptoms might feel mild or severe, and can vary from person to person. If you have neuropathy, you could:

  • Feel sharp or shooting pain that comes or goes
  • Have persistent pain that interferes with your day-to-day life
  • Feel pins-and-needles, itching or weakness
  • Have trouble picking up tiny objects
  • Feel more sensitive to cold or heat
  • Hear ringing in your ears
  • Have trouble with balance, or perhaps trip while walking
  • Be constipated or have other troubles with bowel movements, your bladder or digestion

If you notice signs of neuropathy, it’s important to talk with your providers. You may think these signs are related to your cancer treatment, but other health issues, such as diabetes, can also cause neuropathy. Nerveinfo-icon pain can also be due to surgeryinfo-icon or radiationinfo-icon used in cancer treatment or from tumors pressing on nerves.

It can be helpful to keep a log of what your symptoms feel like and when you experience them. That information may help your providers pinpoint the cause.

Keep a journal, noting when and where you have symptoms, what they feel like, how intense they are and what makes the symptoms worse. Write down which symptoms you have and how long you’ve had them. Rate them on a scale of 1 (not at all uncomfortable) to 10 (the most uncomfortable you have ever been).

Note where you have the symptoms, and if they come and go or are persistent. Be as specific as possible, and let your team know how much neuropathy impacts your life. Take the journal with you when you talk with healthcare providers.

What Causes Neuropathy?

Your doctor may tell you about the risk of neuropathyinfo-icon when you discuss your treatment options. Because chemotherapyinfo-icon medicines travel throughout the body, they can reach the peripheral nerves and damage them. Your doctor may even use the term “chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathyinfo-icon,” or CIPN.

Certain chemotherapy medicines are more commonly linked to neuropathy:

Just taking these medicines does not mean you will develop neuropathy. Higher doses and longer treatment increase the risk, as well as having other risk factors. These include a personal history of diabetes or an autoimmune disease, or drinking too much alcohol.

Research has shown that having neuropathy does not predict disease outcomes such as long-term survival or cancer recurrenceinfo-icon. It might seem logical to assume that side effects such as neuropathy are a sign that chemotherapy is working against the cancer cells, but research has not found evidence to support that idea.

How Long Will Neuropathy Last?

Neuropathyinfo-icon can start during breast cancer treatment or soon after. The symptoms often begin to surface and then go away completely after you finish treatment.

Neuropathy can either be short-term or long-lasting. In some cases, neuropathy can remain long after treatment is over.

How Can I Manage Neuropathy?

If the neuropathyinfo-icon is caused by chemotherapyinfo-icon, your doctor may decide to switch you to a different chemotherapy medicineinfo-icon, use smaller doses or change the timing of your treatments. In some cases, you and your doctor may decide to take a break from treatment to try to give some relief from symptoms and to prevent long-term nerveinfo-icon damage.

Your doctor may also suggest treatment for the pain or discomfort caused by neuropathy. These may include:

  • Pain medicines, either over-the-counterinfo-icon product or by prescriptioninfo-icon
  • Steroids for initial relief from symptoms
  • Creams and lotions that have a numbing effect
  • In some cases, antidepressants or anti-seizure medicines for nerve-related pain

You can also change some things in your daily life to reduct pain from neuropathy, such as:

  • Avoid tight-fitting clothes
  • Wear comfortable shoes, or talk to your doctor about special therapeuticinfo-icon shoes
  • Care for your feet to prevent sores. Check your feet every day and keep them clean
  • Keep your hands and feet warm
  • If you have numbness and tingling in your hands, be careful using scissors and knives
  • If the problem is in your legs and feet, use hand rails to help with balance
  • Avoid standing or walking for long periods
  • Clear clutter and loose rugs in your home to avoid falling

Researchers are looking into other possible remedies and researching ways to prevent neuropathy from occurring in the first place. If your problems are more severe and interfere with your physical abilities, you may be referred to a physical therapistinfo-icon or occupational therapist to help you regain strength and function.

If you have metastaticinfo-icon breast cancer, learn more about ongoing treatment and neuropathy.

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