By Elizabeth Binsfield, BA, RN
Neuropathy is a disease or malfunction affecting nerves. Many people suffer the discomfort of neuropathy, which causes tingling, weakness, numbness, and even pain, due to damage to nerves. It can also lead to dysfunction in organs, causing issues with waste elimination and sexual function.
There are four classifications of neuropathy, but the one most commonly experienced is peripheral neuropathy, which primarily affects the hands and feet. While it can be caused by traumatic injury, infection, chemotherapy, metabolic issues, or even heredity, it’s most often caused by diabetes. The loss of sensation caused by neuropathy can result in problems with muscle tone in the feet or hands, and left untreated, can even result in infection due to inability to feel an injury. For this reason, people suffering from peripheral neuropathy need to inspect affected areas often.
Doctors look for common similar complaints related to neuropathy, so your doctor will want to do a thorough assessment and examination of your nerve reflexes. Being able to describe your symptoms clearly will help tremendously. There are additional blood, imaging, and nerve function tests that your doctor may order to obtain more information to help with diagnosis. Further testing may be done by obtaining biopsy samples of nerves or skin.
Once neuropathy is diagnosed, your doctor will want to determine the cause. If there’s no apparent underlying cause, they may want to wait to see if the neuropathy will resolve on its own. If the neuropathy is related to diabetes, your doctor will want you to stabilize your diabetes before treating the neuropathy. Diabetic neuropathy can’t be cured, but you can prevent it from worsening.
Sometimes neuropathy responds to simple natural treatments, such as vitamin supplementation. The B vitamins are crucial for nerve health, as is vitamin D.
An ingredient in cayenne pepper, capsaicin, has been found to be helpful for some people in relieving various inflammatory pains. Some add cayenne to their diets, some take capsaicin supplements, and others use topical analgesic gels that are available over the counter.
Regardless of the over-the-counter treatment you choose to try, it’s crucial to first discuss it with your doctor. Even over-the-counter medications and treatments can cause other problems for people with certain medical diagnoses, or interact with prescription medications. Although a substance may be “natural,” it can still have the potential to cause problems for some people, depending on their health history and prescribed medications.
If you’re a smoker or a vaper, quitting smoking will improve your circulation. Smoking increases clotting in your blood, which can inhibit proper circulation and even cause dangerous clots. Smoking also causes diabetes to progress more rapidly in those who do smoke. Smoking causes your skin, organs, and other tissues to receive far less oxygen-rich and nutritious blood, leading to unhealthy looking skin, organ dysfunction, and other issues. And those suffering from neuropathy particularly need healthy blood circulation to supply their nerves with vitamins and pain medication, where applicable.
Warm baths and compresses can help with neuropathic pain as they stimulate circulation, thus reducing the discomfort. However, be careful with bath temperature if you’re not sensitive to temperature due to neuropathy; water that’s too hot can be harmful.
Neuropathy is treated medically with a variety of medications. Some of those include:
- Pain relievers, including nonprescription over-the-counter pain analgesics such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, may offer some relief from the discomfort of neuropathy. For greater discomfort, your doctor may prescribe something stronger.
- Medications containing narcotics can lead to dependence and even addiction, so doctors avoid prescribing these unless nothing else provides relief.
- Anti-seizure medications, such as those developed to treat epilepsy, may help alleviate nerve pain.
- Topical treatments, including capsaicin, as mentioned above, and lidocaine cream or patches may help with discomfort, but some people may not be able to tolerate them.
- Antidepressants are being used more commonly to relieve pain with good results for many people.
Therapies for neuropathy include the use of a TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) machine. A TENS machine is a small device with electrodes that attach to the skin. There isn’t a tremendous amount of research on TENS use for neuropathy, and not everyone receives relief with this therapy, but those who do find it worthwhile.
Physical therapy can benefit neuropathy sufferers by reducing neuropathic pain and decreasing blood sugar. According to the Foundation for Peripheral Neuropathy, a comprehensive plan for exercise is best; it should incorporate aerobic, flexibility, strength training, and balance exercises.
It can be helpful to speak with others who also have to manage neuropathic pain. Support groups offer an opportunity to share ideas and experiences with other people who understand your situation. You can search for groups in your area or learn how to start your own group.
Elizabeth Binsfield, RN, is a Richmond, Virginia, based registered nurse and freelance healthcare writer, who has more than 20 years of experience in medical-surgical acute care nursing, wound care, geriatrics, and home and hospice care. She received her nursing degree from Northern Virginia Community College.