What is peripheral neuropathy?

Peripheral neuropathy (also called neuropathy) is a term used to describe damage to the nerves that carry messages between the brain, the spinal cord and the rest of the body.

Different conditions can cause peripheral neuropathy, such as diabetes, injury and some cancer treatments. This information is about cancer-related causes of peripheral neuropathy, which mainly involves neuropathy caused by anti-cancer drugs.

For most people, the symptoms of cancer-related peripheral neuropathy will gradually improve once their cancer treatment has finished.

The nervous system

The nervous system consists of the brain, the spinal cord and a network of nerves throughout the body. It has two main parts. They are:

  • the central nervous system (CNS), which is made up of the brain and spinal cord
  • the peripheral nervous system (PNS), which is made up of nerves that carry messages between the brain, the spinal cord and the rest of the body.

Nerves carry impulses back and forth between the body and the brain. They are made up of nerve cells called neurons. When a nerve ending is stimulated – for example, by heat, touch or vibration – it creates a tiny electrical pulse. This sends a signal along the nerve cell.

When it reaches the end of the cell, the signal triggers the release of chemicals. These carry the signal to the next nerve cell. In this way, messages can be sent from nerves anywhere in the body to the spinal cord and then up to the brain.

There are different types of nerves:

  • Motor nerves

    Motor nerves carry messages from the brain to the muscles. When a muscle receives a message, it reacts with a movement. Messages can be sent from the brain to any part of the body.

  • Sensory nerves

    Sensory nerves carry messages from the body to the brain. These nerves have endings (receptors) that are sensitive to sensations such as pain, temperature, touch and vibration. They enable us to feel different sensations. Although we are not aware of it, our brain is constantly receiving messages from sensory nerves throughout our body. These messages tell our brain where each part of our body is and are important for balance, coordination and walking.

  • Autonomic nerves

    Automatic nerves carry messages back and forth between internal organs and the brain. They control the actions of muscles that are not under our voluntary control. They are responsible for maintaining our blood pressure and heart rate. Autonomic nerves also control the rate that food passes through our digestive tract (stomach and bowel) and how the bladder works.

What causes peripheral neuropathy?

There are several ways that cancer and its treatments can cause peripheral neuropathy:

  • Anti-cancer drugs

    Some anti-cancer drugs can cause nerve damage. This is the most common cause of peripheral neuropathy in people with cancer.

  • Tumour growing close to a nerve

    Cancer can cause peripheral neuropathy in one area of the body if the tumour is growing close to a nerve and presses on it.

  • Surgery

    Surgery may damage nerves and cause symptoms in the affected area. For example, numbness or tingling and pain in the arm may be caused by breast cancer surgery.

  • Radiotherapy

    Rarely, radiotherapy may damage nerves in the treated area. This can cause symptoms such as numbness and weakness. These may develop months or years after treatment.

  • Paraneoplastic syndrome

    Paraneoplastic syndrome is where the body makes substances that damage peripheral nerves. This can happen with types of cancer such as lung cancer, myeloma or lymphoma.

Symptoms of peripheral neuropathy

The symptoms of peripheral neuropathy vary depending on which nerves are affected. Anti-cancer drugs that cause nerve damage are most likely to affect sensory nerves. But some treatments can also affect the motor nerves and the autonomic nerves.

Peripheral neuropathy often affects the hands, feet and lower legs. This is because the longer a nerve is, the more vulnerable it is to injury. Nerves going to the hands, feet and lower legs are some of the longest in the body.

Symptoms of peripheral neuropathy are usually mild to begin with and gradually get worse. They include:

  • A change in sensation

    You may have a feeling of heaviness, burning or pins and needles in the affected area. Or you may notice unusual sensations, such as a feeling of warmth or burning when touching something cold. You may find you have increased sensitivity, so that even the lightest touch or pressure in the affected area feels uncomfortable or painful. Or you may lose sensitivity or feeling in the affected area (numbness). Often the feet and fingertips are the first places to be affected by numbness.

  • Pain

    This can be mild or more severe. The pain may be felt as:

    • sharp and stabbing
    • a burning sensation
    • minor electric shocks.

    There are treatments to help relieve pain.

  • Muscle weakness

    A muscle may lose strength if it is not being stimulated by a nerve. Depending on which muscles are affected, this may make it hard to walk, climb stairs or do other tasks.

  • Constipation and feeling bloated

    This can happen when the nerves that control the rate that food passes through your bowel (autonomic nerves) are affected. Let your doctor or nurse know if you are having these problems.

  • Feeling light-headed or dizzy when you sit up or stand up

    These symptoms are sometimes caused by a sudden drop in your blood pressure, called postural hypotension. This can happen when the nerves that control blood pressure and heart rate (autonomic nerves) are damaged. Your doctor can see if this is the cause of your symptoms by checking your blood pressure when you are lying down and standing up.

  • Difficulty buttoning clothes or picking up small objects

    If the nerve endings in the fingers are affected, you may not be able to do fiddly tasks, such as fastening small buttons or tying shoelaces.

  • Difficulty with balance, walking and coordination

    You may find that you stumble or trip when walking. Uneven surfaces may be particularly difficult. You may feel clumsy at times or you may feel that your body isn’t doing what you want it to. Your sense of where things are around you may become less certain.

Anti-cancer drugs and peripheral neuropathy

There are many different anti-cancer drugs. The types that most often cause peripheral neuropathy are the following:

Other anti-cancer drugs that may cause peripheral neuropathy include thalidomide, bortezomib (Velcade®) and interferon alpha.

You may be at a higher risk if you:

  • are having more than one type of drug or treatment that can cause nerve damage
  • have had previous anti-cancer drugs that can cause peripheral neuropathy
  • have diabetes
  • have low levels of certain minerals and vitamins, such as vitamins E and B – this may be because of your diet, how much alcohol you drink or another reason.

What can I do to reduce my risk of peripheral neuropathy?

If you think your diet may be low in vitamins or minerals, or if you’re concerned that you drink a lot of alcohol, talk to your doctor about whether you should take vitamin supplements. The supplements may help prevent or reduce nerve damage. It is important to talk to your doctor before you take high doses of vitamins or minerals in case this affects how well your treatment works.

If you already have peripheral neuropathy and need to have anti-cancer treatment, there are a large number of anti-cancer drugs that don’t cause peripheral neuropathy or make it worse. Your doctor can talk to you about the possible options.

Assessment for nerve damage

If you are being given a drug that can cause peripheral neuropathy, your doctor will monitor you for signs of nerve damage before each treatment. Symptoms are often mild to begin with and gradually get worse.

The earlier that nerve damage is detected, the better. So it's important to tell your doctor if you notice any new symptoms that may be caused by your treatment or if your symptoms are getting worse.

If an anti-cancer drug is causing peripheral neuropathy, your doctor will assess how much your nerves are affected. This helps them decide whether to continue your treatment, reduce the dose or stop the drug.

Your doctor may do the following:

  • Ask you about how your symptoms affect you.
  • Find out your ability to sense where parts of your body are when your eyes are closed.
  • Check your reflexes in your ankles, knees and wrists.
  • Test for numbness or loss of sensation (pinprick test) in certain areas of your body, such as your feet, lower legs and hands.
  • Assess your balance and coordination – for example, by asking you to walk in a straight line.
  • Check your blood pressure when you are lying down and then when you’re standing up.

Other more specialised tests that are sometimes done include:

  • Nerve conduction studies

    These assess the number of nerve cells that are working and test the speed that your nerves send messages (an impulse).

  • Electromyography (EMG)

    This records the response of the nerve or muscle to an electrical impulse.

Managing peripheral neuropathy

There isn’t a treatment to prevent or reverse nerve damage caused by anti-cancer drugs. Studies are looking at various drug treatments to see if they can help protect against nerve damage during anti-cancer treatment. There are also studies looking into whether any treatments can reverse nerve damage that has occurred. But at the moment, there isn’t enough evidence that any of these drugs work.

The most effective treatment for peripheral neuropathy is to prevent further damage to the nerves and to manage the symptoms. Sometimes it can help to lower the dose of the drug that is causing the problem. If your symptoms continue to get worse, your doctors may have to stop the treatment.

For most people, symptoms gradually improve once the drug is stopped, but they can sometimes continue to get worse for a few weeks. This is called coasting.

Stopping treatment because of symptoms can be very difficult for some people to accept, especially if the treatment is working well. Your doctors will usually talk to you about whether another type of anti-cancer drug can be given instead. Or some other kind of treatment, such as radiotherapy, may be suggested. It is important not to stop treatment without talking to your cancer specialist first.

Most people find that their symptoms gradually improve with time as the nerves slowly recover. This may take several months or more. For some people, nerve damage will be permanent. In this situation, however, many people find that their symptoms become less troublesome over time, as they adapt and find ways of coping with the changes.

Treating pain caused by peripheral neuropathy

If you have nerve pain, sometimes called neuropathic pain, this can be managed in a number of ways:

  • Drugs

    Some types of drugs can alter nerve impulses and help relieve nerve pain. Gabapentin (Neurontin®) and pregabalin (Lyrica®) are drugs that work in this way. They are also anticonvulsants (drugs used to treat epilepsy). Other anticonvulsants and antidepressants are also used to treat nerve pain. If your doctor suggests an antidepressant drug, such as amitriptyline, this is because of the way it acts on nerves, not because they think that the pain is just in your mind. Strong painkillers such as tramadol may sometimes help.

  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)

    TENS uses pads that give off small electrical pulses. They are put onto the skin. This causes a tingling sensation, which aims to stimulate nerves close to the painful area. It’s thought that TENS may work by blocking pain messages from being carried along the nerves to the brain. TENS is unlikely to cause any side effects. Physiotherapists or pain teams can tell you whether TENS is suitable for you and how to use it. They may be able to loan you a TENS machine on a short-term basis so that you can find out if it’s helpful.

  • Acupuncture

    In acupuncture, very fine needles are placed through the skin at particular points. It isn’t clear exactly how this works, but it may help block pain messages from being sent to the brain. Psychological support This may help reduce the anxiety, tension and fear caused by the pain, and make it feel more bearable. Psychological support can be offered by psychotherapists, counsellors and some pain teams.

  • Pain teams

    Many hospitals have pain teams that have specialist doctors and nurses who advise on all aspects of pain control. Your GP or hospital doctor can refer you to a pain team if your pain is troublesome.

Other types of help

If your symptoms are mild, you may not need any additional help in managing them. However, if you have more troublesome symptoms, support is available to help you cope with them.

  • Physiotherapy

    A physiotherapist can offer treatment and advice if you’re having problems with:

    • coordination
    • muscle weakness
    • balance
    • walking.
  • Occupational therapy

    If you are finding it hard to do daily tasks because of peripheral neuropathy, you can ask to be referred to an occupational therapist. They can assess your needs and recommend appropriate aids and equipment to help you.

  • Benefits and financial help

    If you have difficulty moving around or looking after yourself, you may be able to get financial help. If you are aged 16 to State Pension age you may be able to apply for Personal Independence Payment. If you have reached State Pension age, you will need to apply for Attendance Allowance instead. We have got more information about disability-related benefits.

Things you can do to help manage your peripheral neuropathy

Protect your hands and feet

If your hands or feet are affected, it is important to protect them as much as possible:

  • Keep them warm by wearing gloves and socks in cold weather.
  • Wear gloves when working with your hands – for example, when gardening or washing up.
  • Use potholders and take care to avoid burning your hands when cooking.
  • Wear well-fitting shoes or boots.
  • Avoid walking around barefoot and check your feet often for any problems.
  • Test the temperature of water with your elbow to make sure it isn’t too hot before baths, showers or doing the washing-up. Turn the temperature control (thermostat) to a lower setting for hot water, or have a temperature control fitted.

If your balance, coordination or walking are affected

If your balance, coordination or walking are affected, you may be more at risk of accidents and falls. Here are some tips:

  • Make sure rooms are well lit and always put a light on if you get up during the night.
  • Keep areas that you walk through (such as halls) free of clutter. Make sure there aren’t things (such as loose rugs) that you could trip over.
  • Get advice from a physiotherapist about walking aids if your balance is affected.

Feeling lightheaded or dizzy

Your GP can give you advice if problems with your blood pressure are causing you to feel lightheaded or dizzy when you stand up. The following suggestions may also help:

  • Ask your GP to prescribe you support stockings to wear during the day. These improve circulation and can help your symptoms.
  • Do leg exercises, such as moving your feet up and down at the ankle and some gentle marching on the spot, before you stand up.
  • Stand up more slowly, as this gives your body more time to adjust to the change in position.
  • Drink plenty of fluids. Being dehydrated can make your symptoms worse.
  • If you begin to feel lightheaded or dizzy, stop what you are doing and sit down, or lie down if possible. Drink some water.
  • Try to think if there is anything that’s triggered your symptoms that you could avoid.
  • Follow the advice in the previous section to try to make sure there is less risk of hurting yourself if you do fall.

Problems with constipation

If you are having problems with constipation, ask your doctor or a dietitian for advice. We have more information about constipation.

Peripheral neuropathy and your feelings

How peripheral neuropathy affects each person, and how much practical and emotional support is needed to cope with it, varies from person to person. You may find that your life is not affected very much, or you may have many more challenges and difficulties to cope with.

It is natural to feel isolated and frustrated if your symptoms are severe and causing changes to your lifestyle. You may feel angry, resentful or anxious. These are all normal reactions and part of the process many people go through in trying to come to terms with side effects caused by their treatment.

Driving and peripheral neuropathy

You will need to contact the Drivers and Vehicle Licensing Authority (DVLA) to tell them if you have peripheral neuropathy. They will advise you of any restrictions on your right to drive.

Useful organisations

You may also be able to get advice and support from:

  • British Pain Society

    The British Pain Society can provide a list of local pain clinics, and information on managing pain via their ‘For Patients’ section.

  • British Red Cross

    The British Red Cross runs a lending service for equipment and gives practical information on nursing.

  • Disabled Living Foundation

    The Disabled Living Foundation provides practical, up-to-date, unbiased information and advice on equipment to increase independence in daily activities.