Acupuncture as treatment for peripheral neuropathy

I treat a lot of pain in my line of work as an acupuncturist. It just works so well for pain. (And a lot of other things!) I could share lots of stories about how I’ve helped people get out of pain, but let’s start with feet. I can’t say the word “feet” without thinking of the Dr. Seuss “Foot Book,” which I must have read to my daughter hundreds of times, repeating over and over, “Feet, feet, feet!” Feet are so important to us, they carry us around all day long, supporting all our weight, and yet we tend to take them for granted. Until there’s a problem. Many people have come to me for a variety of foot problems, and they often end up being some of my most loyal patients.

I think in particular of one patient, Marshall (names have been changed to protect privacy, but this is a true story), who came to me several years ago. Marshall, sadly, had been diagnosed with intestinal cancer at an early age, in his mid-30’s. Luckily, they caught it early enough that they stopped it in its tracks by removing a large section of his intestines, and then using chemotherapy to kill off anything that was left. So you can go ahead and feel good, he’s a cancer survivor, it’s been more than five years now that he’s been cancer free. Hurray!

Unfortunately, while chemotherapy is one of the best things we have for killing cancer cells, most chemo drugs these days and in the recent past target all fast growing cells in the body, not just cancer cells. That’s why those going through chemo lose their hair and their nails become brittle; like malignant cancer cells, those cells are fast growing so chemotherapy kills those cells along with the cancer. Chemo also often messes with nerve cells, leaving the person with neuropathy, or nerve damage, called peripheral neuropathy when it is in the peripheral system, which includes the hands and feet. Peripheral neuropathy is the most common kind of post-chemotherapy nerve pain. This damage can make the hands and feet both numb and painful, sometimes extremely so. Patients are usually told it is a possible side effect that may go away in a few months, or may never go away. Rarely are they warned how bad it can be. I’ve read too many stories on-line of people in extreme pain after chemotherapy, even to the point of taking methadone, having trouble balancing, and not able to get much help, even years later.

Well, Marshall came to me almost two years after the end of his chemo, with significant pain in both his hands and feet. His feet were much worse, with a lot of numbness and more severe pain. He had hoped it would go away like they said it might, but it hadn’t, and wasn’t changing much. He loved to hike, but couldn’t hike more than about a mile without severe pain in his feet. We started in with a vigorous course of acupuncture, two-to-three-times per week for the first few weeks. I also had him put a special Chinese Herbal salve on his hands and feet every night. Very quickly, the pain and numbness in his hands reduced to next to nothing, and the feet began to improve as well. After the first few weeks, as things were improving, we reduced the acupuncture down to one session a week. After six months of treatment, his feet were in so much less pain, he was already very happy, and he was starting to get feeling back in many areas of his feet. Gradually, the area of numbness was reducing, narrowing down to a central band in the bottom of his foot.

We decided to reduce the treatments to once every two weeks, and this was so doable, and the acupuncture treatments themselves so enjoyable for Marshall, that he’s kept doing this over the past several years. What we’ve seen is that, after the initial fast reduction in pain, improvement slowed, but continued. After one year, he rarely if ever had any problems in his hands, and the pain was so low in his feet he could hike miles again! Now after several years, his feet also rarely have much pain, unless over used. He still experiences some significant numbness in the center of his feet, but that even seems to be slowly, slowly improving. Those with peripheral neuropathy may find it hard to believe that he just came back from a two week vacation to the tropics where he was able to walk in flip-flops all the time, mostly on rock, gravel, and sand! He did have some increased tenderness afterward, which he came right in to clear up after he returned.

So if you or anyone you know has peripheral neuropathy, from chemotherapy, or for other reasons, please, please let them know about acupuncture, and how much it can help. I’ve also seen it help diabetic peripheral neuropathy, and neuropathy from nerve damage due to injuries. For instance, one patient had pain in her left foot ever since falling and breaking her left hip. She tried many things, and has found that acupuncture is the only thing that helps, again reducing her pain to next to nothing. Obviously, I could go on and on about many cases. Please, just don’t stay in pain, try acupuncture.

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