Peripheral neuropathy is a chronic condition that afflicts more than three million people in the United States every year. Most commonly experienced as weakness, numbness, and pain in the hands and feet, it is a frequent and unfortunate side effect of chemotherapy treatment, as well as a result of diabetes, infection, and injury. Though its precipitating factors vary, what is consistent is the condition’s impact: patients’ physical and social activities are limited, and they often experience psychological distress leading to depression, anxiety, and sleep disturbances.
While traditional medicines may manage peripheral neuropathy’s symptoms, they also have troubling side effects and do not provide improvement. Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine are based on a significantly different approach that has a demonstrated ability to provide both relief of discomfort and improved wellbeing and quality of life.
Understanding peripheral neuropathy
The peripheral nervous system is responsible for messages between the brain and the furthest reaches of the body, and the chronic tingling, numbness, and stabbing pain associated with peripheral neuropathy is a direct result of damage to the cells positioned along its vast network. For some sufferers of peripheral neuropathy, symptoms go beyond the sensory, impacting the proper function of the digestive system, the circulatory system, and the urinary tract.
Though nerve damage can be a result of physical trauma (including automobile accidents, falls, and even surgical procedures), these incidents tend to cause single-nerve injuries. In the case of polyneuropathy (simultaneous malfunction of many peripheral nerves), common causes include diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and the toxic chemicals used to treat cancer.
- Diabetic peripheral neuropathy – This condition affects 60% to 70% of all people with diabetes. Though the pathogenesis of diabetic peripheral neuropathy is not completely understood, it is believed to be caused by chronically high blood sugar. The damage done to nerves leads to an inability to feel heat, cold, and pain in the extremities.
- Autoimmune diseases – Autoimmune diseases lead the body’s immune system to attack its own cells. For patients suffering from Sjogren’s syndrome, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis (among others), the damage is done to nerve cells and results in symptoms ranging from numbness or tingling to burning pain or muscle wasting.
- Chemotherapy-Induced Peripheral Neuropathy – Among the many side effects that can arise from chemotherapy treatment, chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy is one of the most long-lasting and troublesome. Patients experience significant pain and may even lose their ability to manage many basic activities of daily life. The condition can also impact blood pressure and heart rate and lead to serious health problems.
No matter the cause, peripheral neuropathy is considered a chronic condition that can be managed but not cured. Traditional medicine treats peripheral neuropathy with an array of medications designed to treat its symptoms, including steroids, numbing medications, antidepressants, anti-seizure medications, and narcotics.
Traditional Chinese Medicine’s perspective on peripheral neuropathy
While Western medicine approaches peripheral neuropathy as a side effect of chemotherapeutic agents or dysfunctional metabolic activities for which there is no cure, Traditional Chinese medicine views the tingling, numbness, and pain experienced by patients as reflective of an obstruction of the flow of Blood and Qi caused by dampness within the limbs. The goal is to identify and treat the cause of the dampness and to bring the Qi and Blood back to the area experiencing discomfort.
By creating a treatment specific to the source of the cold, damp, and wind penetrating the individual patient, acupuncture is able to nourish and warm the afflicted cells, minimizing the clinical manifestations of the condition.
Acupuncture as treatment for peripheral neuropathy
It is believed that acupuncture’s primary mechanism runs through the peripheral nerves, with careful placement of needles based upon the treatment site. Numerous clinical studies support this theory, and have shown both manual acupuncture and electroacupuncture to be effective in the treatment of peripheral neuropathies.
Patients have reported decreased pain and an overall improvement in quality of life, while researchers confirmed increases in nerve conduction. This is particularly true of patients whose neuropathy involves large nerve fibers, which allow needles to be placed in close proximity to the affected nerve cells.
Many peripheral neuropathy patients who have turned to acupuncture treatments found that it brought greater relief than any of the medications that had been prescribed to them, without any adverse effects. Notably, a study of a 15-day acupuncture treatment for diabetic peripheral neuropathy suggested that the therapy may actually accelerate a regenerative process in the nerves, while another study of the effect of acupuncture on chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy found that after the eighth week of treatment, acupuncture provided the greatest mean absolute reduction in pain of all treatments offered.
Chinese Medicine as treatment for peripheral neuropathic pain
Analgesics prescribed as part of Western medicine treatment of peripheral neuropathy have largely proven ineffective for patients who are suffering severe pain, and often deliver adverse effects. A study examining the use of Traditional Chinese medicine for diabetic peripheral neuropathic pain found that aconitum in combination with Huangqi Guizhi Wuwu Tang demonstrated a remarkable reduction in pain that was confirmed via EMG measurements. The treatment yielded no adverse reactions.
Treatment of peripheral neuropathy at Empirical Point Acupuncture
Sharon Sherman has been licensed to practice acupuncture and Oriental Medicine since 2001 and holds the highest credential available from both the Pennsylvania State Board of Medicine and the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. She has deep knowledge and understanding of peripheral neuropathy and of how acupuncture and herbs can provide relief and numerous benefits for the unique range of symptoms experienced by her patients.