What is peripheral neuropathy?

Published: 20 Jun 2018

One of the busy talking points on our chemotherapy support group is peripheral neuropathy.  A scary side-effect from chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and surgery, peripheral neuropathy can manifest in a number of forms, and without medical attention may become much worse.

It can last for months after your last chemo treatment, and in extreme cases can be a lifelong disability.  Often, however, it is nothing more than a temporary painful discomfort.

We will run through what causes it, why, and what you should do if your symptoms persist.

What is it and what are the symptoms?

Peripheral neuropathy is a nerve disorder that can cause weakness, numbness, tingling, impaired motor skills and balance, disrupted bowel and urinary processes, changes in blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, and pain.  This can vary from mild to extreme symptoms.

It occurs because chemotherapy drugs also affect nerve cells that connect between the spine and muscles, skin, and internal organs.  


When these cells are damaged, the messages being sent are disrupted, creating the strange symptoms described above.

Mostly it affects extremities such as hands, fingers, feet, and toes.  However, it isn’t limited to these and can manifest anywhere.

These symptoms are often dependent on drugs taken and dosage; some affect the small sensory nerves in the feet and hands, while others can affect motor skills and internal organs.

What should you do if you have these symptoms?

First and foremost; talk to your oncologist.  As with any concerns you have with side-effects and general wellbeing during chemotherapy, talking to your doctor is the most important step to take.  Not only will they be best placed to explain why your symptoms have arisen, but they will be able to thoroughly test where it stems from and provide treatment options for you.

Typically, a test will examine your sensitivity to light touch, sensitivity to sharp and dull stimulation, finger muscle strength, reflexes, balance, as well as your autonomic responses (i.e. the automatic part of the nervous system – breathing, digestion, blood pressure, etc.

You may also take further neurophysiological tests:

How can you combat neuropathy problems at home?

Where you have decreased sensitivity, such as feet and hands, wear protective clothing to avoid accidental harm.  This is as simple as a jumper, gloves, shoes, thick socks, etc.

Be careful when the weather is very warm or cold as the more extreme temperatures can worsen symptoms.

Be wary when washing dishes or having a bath/shower; keep an eye on the temperature and, if in doubt, go for a lower, safer temperature.

Use mittens when dealing with cooking pots or oven trays.

Keep an eye on your skin for any damage daily as if it goes unnoticed it could become infected and cause more issues.

Some easy ways to combat symptoms or at least provide a bit more comfort include:

As we have already said, the most important thing you can do if you are concerned about your peripheral neuropathy is talk to your doctor; they will be best placed to know how to help and what to look for.

The effects can be extreme, especially pain.  If this is the case, there are painkillers and direct-application patches, such as lidocaine, which can numb the source of pain.  Your doctor will know which is best.

But don’t let it get you down.  Peripheral neuropathy is rarely permanent, especially so when caught and dealt with early.  

If you have any of your own suggestions or want to see what other people are saying, join our chemotherapy support group