Neuropathy is a condition of improper nerve function that affects over two million Americans. It can feel like a combination of numbness, pain, burning and other sensations such as tingling or buzzing. Neuropathy is usually due to damage to the sensory nerves, but motor and/or autonomic nerves may be affected as well. These sensations are caused by damage to the peripheral
nervous system, the communications network that transmits signals from the various parts of the body to the brain and spinal cord (the central nervous system).
Damage to the peripheral nervous system disrupts or interferes with these signals. It is a lot like static on a telephone line. The intensity of the neuropathy symptoms often vary throughout the day with periods of worse symptoms and periods of relief. Often the symptoms are worse with use and get better with rest.
In acute neuropathies, such as Guillain-Barré syndrome, symptoms appear suddenly, progress rapidly, and resolve slowly as damaged nerves heal. In chronic forms, symptoms begin subtly and progress slowly. Some people may have periods of relief followed by relapse. Others may reach a plateau stage where symptoms stay the same for many months or years.
Neuropathy mostly affects middle-aged and elderly individuals to varying degrees. Pain and other symptoms often appear symmetrically, for example, in both feet followed by a gradual progression up both legs. Next, the fingers, hands, and arms may become affected, and symptoms can progress into the central part of the body. The areas of neuropathy associated with nerve distribution can be further examined for nerve damage. Nerve conduction velocity studies and electromyography can help determine the extent of nerve damage involved.
Some common causes of neuropathy include: diabetes, alcoholism, HIV, toxins, metabolic abnormalities, vitamin deficiencies, and adverse side-effects of specific drugs such as chemotherapy. These powerful drugs can damage nerves, especially in the legs, causing pain and/or difficulty walking due to numbness.
Western medical treatment for neuropathy may include physical therapy, exercises, and medications such as Neurontin or Gabapentin. The effectiveness of these therapies vary, but generally relief of symptoms is slow. Because Western Medicine lacks an effective treatment for neuropathy, it has increasingly turned to acupuncture to provide patients with relief.
Several recent studies, sponsored by major medical institutions, have reported promising results in decreased pain and other symptoms for patients suffering from neuropathy. Some of these studies have focused on peripheral neuropathy caused by diabetes and chemotherapy induced neuropathy. Although an individual may not recover immediately or completely, the improvement in symptoms from acupuncture can make a difference in one’s comfort level and quality of life. Often patients notice significant improvements in their neuropathy symptoms with a few sessions of acupuncture.