Pain/tingling/numbness (neuropathy)

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While many cancer patients complete their treatment regimen with no lasting after-effects, some patients may have lingering side effects, including pain, tingling or numbness in the arms and legs. Medications, steroids or physical and occupational therapy may ease the problems. You should talk with your doctor if you are experiencing or continue to experience these side effects after treatment.

Chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy, or CIPN, can cause severe pain and make it difficult to use your fingers to pick up objects or even walk. While a strong tingling feeling or shock-like pain is the most often recognized symptom, other signs include

  • Pain that comes and goes
  • Burning sensation
  • Numbness
  • Balance problems
  • Sensitivity to touch
  • Muscle weakness
  • Constipation or urinating problems

A telltale sign is when symptoms move from the feet to the hands, or from the fingers to the arms — in other words, starting from a farther point in the hands or legs and then moving up toward the torso and head.

Lifestyles changes may be beneficial.  The American Cancer Society recommends that if you are experiencing neuropathy and/or pain:

  • Avoid things that seem to make your symptoms worse, such as hot or cold temperatures, or snug clothes or shoes.
  • Don’t drink alcohol. It can cause nerve damage on its own, and might make CIPN worse.
  • If you have diabetes, control your blood sugar. High blood sugar levels can damage nerves.
  • If you have neuropathy in your hands, be very careful when using knives and other sharp objects.
  • Examine your feet daily to see if you have any injuries or open sores. Always wear shoes that cover your whole foot when walking, even at home.
  • If you have trouble walking and balancing, try to support yourself as much as possible by holding onto walls or using a walker or cane. If possible, install handrails in the hallways and bathrooms to help you keep your balance. Remove throw rugs from walkways in your home to prevent falls.
  • Avoid extreme temperatures. Keep hands and feet warm and well covered in cold weather. Protect yourself from heat injuries and turn down your hot water heater temperature so that is less than 120 degrees. Use gloves when using hot water to wash dishes or to handle items being removed from the freezer.

Lingering pain and neuropathy can impact quality of life and lead to depression or anxiety if not addressed. Talk with your cancer team as soon as possible if you notice ongoing symptoms that need to be addressed. You may also benefit from a referral to the Pain Management Center, a multidisciplinary team of specialists who focus solely on pain management during and after cancer treatment. For more information, call (314) 362-8820.