How does chemotherapy affect nerve pain?

Two women hugging each other, one with cancer

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, and we’re taking this opportunity to specifically focus on the nerve pain of those fighting breast cancer and other cancers alike. ​

While there are many highly recognized side-effects from chemotherapy treatment — including fatigue, hair loss, nausea and vomiting — nerve pain isn’t necessarily at the top of the list. However, some chemotherapy drugs used to treat cancer can cause nerve damage. This is specifically called “chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy” (CIPN). Drugs used for chemotherapy are systemic treatments, meaning the specific substance travels through the bloodstream during each round of treatment, reaching and affecting cells all over the body. Though often lifesaving, these powerful medications can take a toll on many bodily functions including the nervous system. ​

As the chemo drugs spread throughout the body, symptoms of CIPN may appear. They often start farthest from the head. For example, you will often notice CIPN symptoms in your feet, later your hands, slowly creeping toward your head. ​

Although the symptoms of CIPN vary depending on which nerves are damaged, the most common symptoms include:

  • Shooting or stabbing pain
  • Burning
  • Tingling
  • Numbness
  • Trouble using fingers
  • Balance problems
  • Sensitivity to cold/heat
  • Shrinking muscles
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Decreased or complete loss of reflexes​

CIPN can hinder your everyday activities, including writing, walking, buttoning your shirt or picking up small objects. More serious problems include changes in your heart rate and blood pressure, trouble breathing, and even dangerous falls. 

People may start experiencing nerve pain as soon as they begin chemo. Unfortunately, the symptoms tend to get worse as the chemo regimen progresses. CIPN isn’t uncommon. Studies by the National Cancer Institute show that about 30 to 40 percent of people develop CIPN while undergoing chemo treatment. 

For some, CIPN is only a temporary problem, lasting a few days or weeks. However, for others, the symptoms can last months, years, or even become a lifelong problem. These longer-lasting issues are more likely if you have other medical conditions such as an autoimmune disorder, diabetes, HIV, or poor circulation, or even if you’re taking other prescription drugs that aggravate nerve pain. ​

Remember, you’re not alone in your fight against cancer. This is the same in your battle with nerve pain. If you have or are experiencing symptoms of CIPN, talk with your physician about how to manage CIPN during your chemo treatment. He or she may recommend INF™ treatment as an option to reduce nerve pain. There are other methods that may help you regulate nerve pain, including daily exercise, lots of fresh air, massages, meditation, going gluten-free and adopting a more plant-based diet.​

Try these methods out for yourself, and find what best helps you. 

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