Today I want to write about the topic that relates to the old saying: “cancer is the gift that keeps on giving.” I’m talking about peripheral neuropathy from chemo. Not all, but many cancer patients suffer from it and are looking for anything that could bring any relief. Many like me are asking, can neuropathy be reversed? And, if not, are there any natural remedies for neuropathy from chemo. For, example, is there an herb or essential oil that treats neuropathy?
What Is Peripheral Neuropathy?
Peripheral neuropathy is caused by damage to the nerves, typically in the extremities, affecting most often a person’s hand and feet. For me, it started toward the end of my chemo treatments. It showed up as tingling and numbness in my fingers and toes, and then it progressed to entire feet and hands. Tingling, burning, pain in the hands caused me to drop things, I wasn’t able to hand-write much, I could not open jars, etc. Neuropathy in the feet meant I had to give up any non-cushioned footwear, I could not play sports for a while or walk for a longer time.
Gradually, about a year since the chemo ended, the neuropathy went away from my hands. Feet, however, remained impacted. For the last few years, I’ve been trying different remedies, and in this post, I will write about what worked and what did not.
What Causes Neuropathy?
There are many causes of neuropathy, and they may include:
Injury or trauma to the extremities
prolonged heavy alcohol use
exposure to toxins, such as lead or arsenic
vitamin B deficiency
certain types of chemotherapy
Chemotherapy-Induced Peripheral Neuropathy (CIPN)
Cancer treatments are meant to kill cancer cells. However, some powerful treatments, like most chemo, are used systemically, which means they are not targeting only the cancer cells, but all cells in the body. A nasty “side-effect” of some chemotherapy drugs is that healthy cells and tissues also get damaged, oftentimes beyond repair. This is why some chemo might cause hair loss. This is luckily temporary and after the chemo is stopped, most will get their hair back. Other chemo agents might target other organs. When chemotherapy damages peripheral nerves, it is called chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy, or CIPN.
Here are a few chemotherapy agents that can cause CIPN
- Platinum-based (cisplatin, oxaliplatin)
- Vinca alkaloids (vincristine, vinorelbine, vinblastine)
- Taxanes (paclitaxel, docetaxel)
- Proteasome inhibitors (bortezomib)
- Thalidomide, lenalidomide, pomalidomide
- Biologics (ipilimumab, nivolumab)
It’s important to note that not all neuropathy in cancer patients is caused by chemo. Sometimes, peripheral neuropathy might be induced by surgery, radiation treatments, treatment-related infections, the tumor pressing on nerves, or chemicals released internally by tumors.
Symptoms tend to start in the fingers and toes, progressing to hands and feet, then arms and legs. It can become hard to pick things up, hold on to things, walk, and perform tasks like buttoning your shirt.
Chemotherapy drugs used to treat cancer cause polyneuropathy in an estimated 30 to 40 percent of users. Only certain chemotherapy drugs cause neuropathy and not all people get it. Chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy may continue long after stopping the chemotherapy. Radiation therapy also can cause nerve damage, sometimes starting months or years later.Peripheral Neuropathy Fact Sheet
Can Neuropathy Be Reversed?
Chemo-induced peripheral neuropathy comes on slowly, and it also improves slowly. Symptoms can begin any time after your treatment begins.
For me, they started after my last of 12 treatments with oxaliplatin. They started suddenly but mildly. When my chemo series was over, I assumed I was done with side effects. But, the neuropathy worsened slowly but surely. For the next few months, I was feeling more and more tingling and burning, until it became almost impossible to walk.
After these few months, the symptoms plateaued and then the sensations began getting better. Over the course of a few months, my hands were free of neuropathy. Unfortunately, the damage in the feet must have been permanent because the symptoms, while lessened, are still persisting.
According to research, around 30% of patients who developed CIPN at any time during treatment, will still experience symptoms even six months after the chemo has ended.
In a recent meta-analysis of 31 studies of CIPN involving a total of 4,179 patients, the aggregate prevalence of CIPN was 48 percent. Within the first month after the patients completed chemotherapy, 68 percent had CIPN; the prevalence decreased to 30 percent after 6 monthsMemorial Sloan Kettering. Neuropathy Commons
Can Neuropathy Be Prevented?
Oncologists are aware of the problems with neuropathy and they do monitor the patients for symptoms. Because mine started so late in the game, there was really nothing that could have been done. I know, however, from fellow patients and survivors, that some had the platinum-based agent either removed from their regimen or its strength decreased.
There are also a few supplements that one can take to prevent neuropathy, or, at least to lessen its symptoms. They include:
Vitamin B-12 (Meythcobalamin)
This vitamin is crucial for nerve health. Deficiency of B-12 may damage the protective sheath that surrounds nerves which can result in nerves not functioning properly. Supplementing with vitamin B12 in high doses may help in the regeneration of nerves.
This is an amino acid and antioxidant that is naturally produced in the liver and kidneys. If a person is deficient in this crucial amino acid, it is crucial to supplement.
L-acetylcarnitine is a promising compound for the treatment of painful neuropathies for its dual mechanisms, which include a significant analgesic effect after chronic administration and the ability to promote peripheral nerve regeneration and to improve vibration perception.Current Neuropharmacology
This is another crucial antioxidant. Much of the nerve damage that causes neuropathy is due to oxidative stress and so alpha-lipoic acid may help to reverse the free radical damage of oxidative stress and slow or stop nerve damage.
These three supplements were prescribed to me by my functional doctor and approved by my oncologist for use during my chemo treatments. I believe that they saved me from developing the CIPN much earlier and also from getting permanent damage to my hands. While giving up high heel shoes is not a huge deal, dropping things and being unable to use a pen to write would have been truly debilitating.
IMPORTANT: Check with your doctor before taking any supplements. They can make your cancer treatments work less well and might cause problematic side effects, especially if taken at the wrong dose.
Is Healing Neuropathy Possible At All?
Truth be told, there are currently no treatments that can fix the nerve damage that already occurred. Instead, doctors can prescribe medications that can relieve and manage symptoms, especially the pain.
Amongst the conventional drugs used for treatment of neuropathy symptoms are:
- Some anti-depressants like Duloxetine (Cymbalta), Venlafaxine, Amitriptyline, Nortriptyline (Pamelor) can help with tingling and numbness (I have been taking a small dose of duloxetine with good results)
Nortriptyline and newer serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors such as duloxetine hydrochloride modulate pain by increasing the brain’s ability to inhibit incoming pain signals.National Institutes of Health
2. Anti-convulsant and anti-epileptic medications, for example Gabapentin
I have to say I tried this and got up to huge doses to very little effect. I did hear from some patients though that it does bring them relief. It goes to show that everybody is different and it makes sense to try different things and see what works and what does not.
3. Lidocaine patches
I have not tried it myself since I’m dealing mainly with tingling and burning sensations rather than pain.
4. Capsaicin cream (made from chili pepper extract)
Tried it once but got some in my eye and do not want to risk this pain again. I heard from patients though, that it can be helpful, especially when dealing with pain.
Alternative Medicine and Healing Neuropathy
What does alternative or functional medicine have to say about neuropathy? There are some remedies that work well, especially when combined with multiple approaches.
Acupuncture and reflexology can help relieve peripheral neuropathy pain. Additionally, a Tradicional Chinese Medicine doctor can suggest herbs that may speed recovery.
Exercise can bring relief, even though it might seem impossible to do at first. Personally, I stayed away from exercising for about a year since my neuropathy started. When I eventually went back to the spinning studio, I was amazed at how quickly I got back into the swing of things. And, indeed, exercising did lessen the symptoms. Maybe it’s psychological, maybe not. What counts is that exercising does bring relief, in addition to all other anti-cancer and general health benefits.
Exercise promotes muscle tone, and this may reduce some symptoms of neuropathy. Exercise can also help combat several health issues that cause neuropathy.Medicine News Today
When used both internally and externally, this crucial mineral can help calm the nervous system and muscles – which in turn helps with nerve-related pain. I take magnesium glycinate every night and I also make a magnesium foot cream. Both remedies help with neuropathy and additionally help me sleep better by lessening anxiety and calming my restless leg syndrome.
Even though there is only scan research suggesting that essential oils can help with pain resulting from nerve damage, anecdotally, essential oils can bring relief. In fact, this is how I got hooked up on essential oils. A fellow patient made a roller blend of essential oils for my burning feet and I found enough relief to start researching and eventually becoming an essential oil junkie.
Essential oil Neuropathy Treatment
Here are the oils one might consider when making a nerve-calming blend.
Roman chamomile can help decrease oxidative stress and has mild anti-pain properties
Borneol, a compound in chamomile and lavender essential oils, may help reduce pain and inflammation that relates to neuropathy. Additionally, lavender promotes relaxation which can help with sleep issues related to neuropathy.
This (a bit pricey) oil is great for the soothing of bruises, promotion of the skin’s natural healing process, and support of the nervous system – potential help for neuropathy symptoms.
Not only great for any type of digestive issues, peppermint oil is also beneficial as a pain relief agent.
Holy Basil (Tulsi)
Holy basil essential oil is rich in saponin which has ameliorative potential in attenuating painful neuropathic state, which may be attributed to a decrease in oxidative stress and calcification. (Study)
My Healing Essential Oil Blend
After reading studies on the use of the above-mentioned and other oils and herbs, I came up with a blend that I use for foot massage. It brings me great relief from tingling, numbness, and the burning sensation in my feet. I use it as needed, but definitely in the evening before sleep. Then I follow up with my magnesium cream which also has lavender (calming, anti-inflammatory) and copaiba (analgesic and anti-cancer) essential oils in it.
I blend this with half evening primrose oil and half sweet almond oil. Evening primrose oil has gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) which has been proven to aid in nerve conduction and increasing blood flow (Clinical study)
Almond oil is just very nourishing and has perfect slip for a massage oil.
Because it is to used medicinally, I blend at 5%. However, if you are new to oils, I would suggest starting at 2% dilution. Pure essentials oils are very concentrated and using them in strong dilution on the skin might be too much for some. Start low, and then add more if needed.
Recipe for 1 oz of the oil blend
I’m including affiliate links here in case you want to purchase the oils for yourself. If you click on one and purchase the product I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. For more info see the Terms and Conditions Page.
Take a 1 oz (30ml) dark glass dropper bottle.
Fill it half way with almond oil.
Add 5 drops of each essential oil:
Tulsi (Holy Basil)
Top it off with Evening Primrose Oil.
Shake well, use as needed to massage the feet or hands or where ever the neuropathy is present.
I certainly hope you will find this useful and working for you as well as it does for me. Neuropathy is a tough nut to crack, but with continuous attention and while combining different approaches (supplements, acupuncture, essential oils, exercise), finding a bit of relief is possible.