You might only feel it ever so slight at first, just some mild tingling or light pain. But the pain you suffer from peripheral neuropathy can quickly become unbearable. The damage to your nerves can go beyond tingling and numbness to outright paralysis.
Peripheral neuropathy refers to the many conditions that involve damage to peripheral nerves. The peripheral nervous system is responsible for sending sensory information to and from the central nervous system. It usually causes weakness, numbness and pain in the extremities, such as hands and feet. There are many types of peripheral neuropathy, from carpal tunnel syndrome to nerve damage caused by diabetes.
Neuropathy can affect the nerves that control movement and those that detect sensations such as pain, heat and cold. In some cases, neuropathy can affect internal organs such as the heart, blood vessels, bladder, or intestines — in that case, we would be talking about autonomic neuropathy.
Peripheral neuropathy symptoms
The most common symptoms of peripheral neuropathy include:
- Numbness, prickling or tingling in your feet and hands, with possible spread to legs and arms
- Extreme sensitivity to touch
- Sharp or burning pain
- Lack of coordination
For autonomic neuropathy, the symptoms also include:
- Heat intolerance
- Digestive problems
- Drop in blood pressure
5 stages of peripheral neuropathy
There are five distinct stages of peripheral neuropathy. Don’t ignore the symptoms if you start experiencing any of these warning signs — seek medical attention.
Early signs of pain and numbness that indicate something isn't right. Symptoms may be subtle and occur rarely.
What can cause nerve damage?
There are many different causes of peripheral neuropathy. There are genetic and hereditary causes, but they’re not common. The main health conditions that can cause neuropathy include:
- Autoimmune diseases such as lupus, Sjorgen’s syndrome and Guillain-Barre syndrome
- Exposure to poisons like industrial chemicals and heavy metals
- Motor vehicle accidents
- Bone marrow disorders
- Sports injuries
- Vitamin deficiencies
- Medications such as those used for chemotherapy
- Infections like Lyme disease, shingles and hepatitis B and C
How is peripheral neuropathy usually treated?
In some cases, surgery is needed, such as when the neuropathy is caused by a tumour pressing against the nerves. For most cases, the treatment goals are to relieve the pain and symptoms and prevent further damage so the nerve can heal itself. Medication is often prescribed to help with pain relief but doesn’t cure the problem.
Nerve health can be largely determined by lifestyle choices. Patients are recommended to include exercising, sensible eating and keeping a healthy weight, while avoiding harmful activities like smoking or excessive alcohol consumption.
In most cases, physiotherapy is recommended to help aid the healing process.
How can physiotherapy help with neuropathy?
Physiotherapy will help improve your mobility and balance. A custom exercise program will help strengthen your muscles and improve your overall fitness level. Other than manual therapy, which helps increase flexibility and stability in the joints affected by nerve damage, using a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) machine is one of the best treatments for neuropathy. The TENS machine stimulates nerves in the body using low-voltage electric currents to treat pain.
When combined with acupuncture, physiotherapy can offer great benefits.
What is acupuncture and how does it work?
Acupuncture comes from traditional Chinese medicine and involves the insertion of tiny, fine needles at strategic points of your body to activate nerves, muscles and connective tissues. It stimulates the body to release endorphins, and has also been shown to reduce proinflammatory markers in your body — decreasing inflammation and reducing pain. It also stimulates blood flow, which is one of the most important things when it comes to neuropathy.
Between 5–20 extremely fine needles are inserted at various depths on your body. The needles used are as fine (or finer) than human hair. In most cases, you can't feel the needles being inserted and you’ll experience little to no discomfort. Your practitioner might gently manipulate the needles around after placement, or apply heat or mild electrical pulses to encourage stimulation. After about 10 to 20 minutes, the needles are removed.
There are several acupuncture techniques available to help treat neuropathy, including:
- Traditional acupuncture
- Laser acupuncture
- Cupping therapy
You can read more about these different techniques on our acupuncture services page.
How does acupuncture help with neuropathy?
Acupuncture stimulates blood flow and the nervous system to release endorphins, which acts as a natural painkiller. Medications typically prescribed to manage neuropathy pain can have many negative side effects like dizziness, constipation, blurred vision, and upset stomach, and don’t do anything to cure the condition. Natural pain management from acupuncture doesn’t have any of those side effects, and the improved blood flow also helps accelerate healing.
Combining acupuncture with physiotherapy isn’t new — physiotherapists have been using this technique combination for over 40 years. Physical therapy’s ability to help with muscle movement combined with acupuncture’s effect on nerve stimulation and blood flow have shown to produce better outcomes than using just one or the other.