Are your hands and feet numb? Here’s why and what to do.

May 25, 2016 | by Kevin B. Bockhold, MD

Whether you know it or not, your nervous system works hard for your body every day. Your nervous system helps you get ready for work in the morning, do simple math problems, and make dinner at night.

Your nervous system sends messages back and forth from your brain to different parts of your body letting you know you should react to certain senses.

So what happens to your nervous system during chemotherapy? Some chemotherapy drugs may cause damage to the nerves that help control the sensations of your arms and legs. This is called peripheral neuropathy.

Peripheral neuropathy can develop at any stage of cancer, even after treatment has been completed. Knowing the causes and side effects can help you manage and describe symptoms to your health care team.

According to a recent study, peripheral neuropathy symptoms tend to start farthest away from the head, and move closer over time. Here’s what side effects to look for:

  • Numbness, tingling  (feeling of pins and needles) in hands and/or feet
  • Tripping or walking on level surfaces
  • Burning of hands and/or feet
  • Numbness around mouth
  • Loss of sensation to touch
  • Constipation
  • Weakness or leg cramping
  • Being more sensitive to cold or heat, touch or pressure
  • Balance problems

You can minimize the effects of neuropathy by talking with your doctor and following his/her instructions. You will also want to:

  • Take your time with tasks and handle objects carefully.
  • Walk slowly and use handrails or a cane if available.
  • Minimize tripping hazards in the environment such as removing throw rugs and keeping cords off the floor.
  • Protect yourself in the shower and at home. Consider putting a no-slip bath mat in your shower or bathtub and keep a nightlight on at home to help you see better in the late evenings.
  • Wear comfortable shoes to protect your feet and improve your balance.
  • Eat right, continue to stay active and exercise often to improve and increase your range of motion. 
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Talk to your doctor about the possibility of visiting a wound care specialist. Physical therapy may also help strengthen your muscles that have gotten weak.

With appropriate treatment, the effects of peripheral neuropathy can be manageable.

Learn about wound care at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

Find cancer support services at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

How do you stay active during chemo to improve your balance and coordination? Tell us in the below comments.

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