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Peripheral neuropathy is a set of symptoms caused by damage to the nerves that are outside the brain and spinal cord. These distant nerves are called peripheral nerves. They carry sensations (a feeling in different parts of your body) to the brain and control the movement of our arms and legs. They also control the bladder and bowel.
If you have peripheral neuropathy, you may notice some of these sensations in your hands or feet:
Some of the chemotherapy and other drugs used to treat cancer can damage peripheral nerves. When this happens it is called chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN). This can be a disabling side effect of cancer treatment.
CIPN can cause severe pain and can affect your ability to do things like walk, write, button your shirt, or pick up coins. CIPN can last for weeks, months, or even years after treatment is done. If it gets very bad, it can cause more serious problems like changes in your heart rate and blood pressure, dangerous falls, trouble breathing, paralysis, or organ failure.
Peripheral neuropathy can be caused by other things besides chemotherapy; such as:
It’s very important to know what’s causing peripheral neuropathy so that the right treatment can be given. The focus here will be on peripheral neuropathy that’s a side effect of chemo – CIPN.
Certain chemo drugs are more likely to cause CIPN. Some of the more common ones include:
If you’re not sure if a chemo drug you’re getting might cause CIPN, ask your cancer care team.
The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
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National Cancer Institute. Nerve Problems (Peripheral Neuropathy) and Cancer Treatment. 8/9/18. Accessed at https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/side-effects/nerve-problems on September 19, 2019.
National Cancer Center Network (NCCN). Adult Cancer Pain. Version 3.2019. Accessed at https://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/pain.pdf on September 19, 2019.
Oncology Nursing Society (ONS). Symptom interventions: Peripheral neuropathy. Accessed at https://www.ons.org/pep/peripheral-neuropathy on September 19, 2019.
Piccolo J, Kolesar JM. Prevention and treatment of chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy. Am J Health Syst Pharm. 2014;7:119-1125.
Smith EM, Zanville N. Peripheral neuropathy. In Brown CG, ed. A Guide to Oncology Symptom Management. 2nd ed. Pittsburgh, PA. Oncology Nursing Society; 2015:531-549.
Yust-Katz S, Gilbert MR. Neurologic Complications In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia: Elsevier, 2020:822-844.e6
Last Revised: November 1, 2019
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