January 2009

Peripheral Neuropathy — An Update

By Elliot Wagner, O.M.D., L.Ac., Doctor of Oriental Medicine

A little over a year ago in this column I wrote about the treatment of peripheral neuropathy with acupuncture and Chinese medicine. A few months later I was invited to speak at the local meeting of the Northern California Chapter of the Neuropathy Association, and what we discussed must have intrigued them because more than thirty patients from that meeting came to our office to find out more and get treated.

The effectiveness of the treatment of this difficult problem with acupuncture and Chinese medicine was confirmed in great measure by our experience with these new patients. This is not to say that everyone was cured. Some came simply to take advantage of the offer of a free consultation and to learn more about the problem from a Chinese medicine point of view. Others came for a brief course of care. Of those who stayed for a full course of treatment (that is, until maximum correction had been achieved) virtually everyone was helped, not only with their neuropathy, but with many of the other problems that sufferers of chronic problems often have, such as fatigue, weakness, and depression.

Do you have foot or hand numbness? Do you find walking more difficult than you used to, or do you occasionally have trouble feeling and holding on to ordinary small objects? You may have the early signs of peripheral neuropathy. Peripheral neuropathy is a condition of the nerves of the extremities that shows up as tingling and numbness, or "nulliness," which feels like numbness without a loss of sensation. Some patients feel as though their feet are constantly in a sock or walking on pebbles. Because this condition can affect the proprioceptive nerves that control position sense, manipulating and grasping small objects, such as drinking a cup of tea, can become more difficult. When it affects the feet and legs, walking, or even standing, can bring about unsteadiness.

Peripheral neuropathy is a usually slow-developing condition caused by injury to the sensory nerve covering or insulation, called the myelin sheath. Patients tend to be diabetic or pre-diabetic, or are taking medications that produce neuropathy as a side effect, or encounter the problem later in life. In western medicine it is accepted — and patients are given to understand — that there is no cure for peripheral neuropathy, and treatment is symptomatic: "You will have to learn to live with it." Anti-epileptic drugs, such as Neurontin, and antidepressants such as Elavil are the medications of choice for the constellation of neuropathic symptoms, particularly hypersensitivity and depression. Analgesics are prescribed when there is neuropathic pain.

In Chinese medicine we use acupuncture and herbs to — to use Chinese medical terminology — Move the Blood (stimulate circulation), Tonify the Blood (increase oxygenation and alleviate anemia), Tonify the Qi (increase vitality), and disperse Cold (increase metabolic activity) to treat the various manifestations of neuropathy.

Neuropathy is a challenging problem, and many people suffer with this condition not knowing they can improve significantly with alternative treatment; Chinese medicine in particular. If you have neuropathy, or suspect you have, and have tried medicines or other remedies without help, I strongly urge you to consider acupuncture.