If you suffer from peripheral neuropathy, you likely know the horrors of walking barefoot on a cold, hard surface, like a tile floor. The resulting pain or numbness can feel almost unbearable.
Peripheral neuropathy is a common concern that we see here in our Houston acupuncture clinic, and it occurs when damaged nerves in the peripheral nervous system cause burning, tingling, or even a lack of sensation - usually in the hands and feet. Both Western and Eastern medicine offer solutions for peripheral neuropathy, and it’s important for people to be aware of their varying options.
What Causes Peripheral Neuropathy & How is it Most Commonly Treated?
Peripheral neuropathy is most frequently caused by diabetes, however, this common neurological condition can also result from thyroid disorders, certain autoimmune diseases, vitamin B12 deficiencies, infections, traumatic injuries, or exposure to toxins, heavy metals or certain kinds of drugs, like those used in chemotherapy.
The most common solutions offered by Western clinicians are anticonvulsants or mood-enchanting pharmaceutical drugs, like gabapentin, pregabalin, amitriptyline or duloxetine, which have been shown to be effective in reducing neuropathic pain. Steroids, aimed at reducing inflammation, or immunosuppressants, which reduce the activity of the nervous system, may also be offered. Some doctors even prescribe powerful painkillers, like Tramadol, which has been shown to significantly reduce pain, but, like all opiods, carries the risk of being highly addictive. These drugs, which are aimed at symptomatic management, can provide more immediate relief, but do come with a caveat: the potential for some not-so-fun side effects, including dizziness, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, swelling, weight gain and more.
Many more physicians are beginning to understand the power of nutrition, and may be able to recommend diet modifications and supplementation to reduce inflammation and support nerve health, or refer you to a nutritionist who can help with this.
The majority of research conducted today is centered around Western medicine solutions for neuropathy rather than Eastern approaches, like acupuncture, which can lead many to feeling skeptical about alternative solutions. And while more acupuncture studies are becoming available today, it’s important to understand that acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine can sometimes be difficult to measure by Western medicine “standards,” as the core of Eastern medicine’s therapeutic effectiveness comes from the principle that every person, with their very unique constitutional make-up and environmental circumstances, has a unique set of symptoms which require a customized treatment best suited to them. The success of Eastern medicine, and the very reason for its centuries-long continuity is that doesn’t take a one-size-fits-all or “standardized” approach.
For example, if one patient is experiencing burning neuropathic pain accompanied by other symptoms, like dryness or feeling easily overheated, while another suffers from numbness, as well as extreme fatigue and swelling, a Western physician may prescribe the same medication for both, but an Eastern medicine practitioner would likely take two different approaches to treat each patient individually, as their underlying constitutional patterns are very different.
The Eastern Approach for Treating Peripheral Neuropathy
According to traditional Chinese medicine, peripheral neuropathy occurs when there's a blockage of “qi” (energy) and blood in the body. Our qi helps to circulate blood, and blood carries oxygen and nutrients to our bodies’ tissues. If the qi and blood cannot circulate freely throughout the entire body, certain peripheral cells and tissues won’t receive the nourishment they require. In the case of peripheral neuropathy, acupuncture helps to stimulate the body’s nerve pathways, which can mitigate pain and aid nerve regeneration, thus increasing sensation in cases of numbness. But also, by improving blood flow throughout the entire body, nerve tissues in the extremities are also more adequately nourished, which can ultimately serve to repair nerve function over time.
And Chinese medicine not only aims to treat a person’s presenting symptoms, but also their body’s underlying physiological imbalances which led to the symptoms — AKA, the “root cause.” As a holistic system of medicine - meaning, practitioners take into account all of the systems within the body, rather than breaking it down to treat individual parts - many patients experience better health overall, when seeking alternative treatment for their peripheral neuropathy. Therefore, the Eastern approach may also be helpful in mitigating issues including:
numbness or paresthesia in the limbs
muscle cramps or twitching
changes in blood pressure
Acupuncture may produce mild side effects, which include bruising, soreness or slight bleeding at the needle site. You can read more about side effects in our FAQs here. And while side effects are generally much less extreme in Eastern medicine, the biggest downside for many is that acupuncture doesn’t always produce instantaneous results, as many in the West are accustomed to. This is because true healing takes time. A course of weekly or bi-weekly treatments for ten or more sessions is often advised, with periodic maintenance treatments recommended thereafter, however, every patient’s treatment plan will be slightly different, depending on the severity and length of their neuropathy.
Traditional Eastern medicine systems are actually the original functional medicine models, and therefore, acupuncturists are equipped to not only treat an issue and its root cause, but also offer customized diet, supplementation and lifestyle modifications, which can help to both correct and prevent issues. We at Nguyen Wellness + Recovery believe awareness and education are our greatest tools for prevention, and we take a teamwork approach here in our Houston acupuncture clinic, because, while we are here to help you and guide you, you are ultimately the one in charge of your health.