What most people call “neuropathy” is actually peripheral neuropathy, or damage to the peripheral nervous system. The peripheral nervous system encompasses all the nerves except those of the brain and spinal cord, which together make up the central nervous system. There are three basic types of peripheral neuropathy: motor neuropathy, which affects your ability to perform conscious acts (e.g., walking, talking, grasping things), sensory neuropathy, which affects your ability to feel outside stimuli (e.g., heat, cold, tactile stimuli), and autonomic neuropathy, which affects your ability to accomplish things that are beyond your conscious control (e.g., digestion, heartbeat, glandular secretions).
The symptoms of neuropathy can vary widely. They can include numbness or tingling, several types of pain, extreme sensitivity to touch, lack of balance or coordination, muscle weakness or paralysis, heat intolerance, excessive sweating, bowel and digestive problems, dizziness, lightheadedness, or some combination of these. This list is paraphrased from the Mayo Clinic’s informative neuropathy page.
Neuropathy is a symptom
Neuropathy isn’t something you catch. It is a symptom of other conditions. The risk factors include alcoholism, autoimmune disorders, vitamin deficiencies, infections, toxins (including chemotherapy), genetics, and injury, particularly repetitive stress injury (carpal tunnel syndrome is a neuropathy). But one of the biggest risk factors is diabetes, which is why television commercials for medicines to deal with diabetic nerve pain are so common.
More than 20 million Americans have neuropathy, and the Mayo Clinic describes six kinds of treatment: pain relieving medications, anti-seizure medications (which can sometimes provide pain relief), topical treatments (which sometimes help control pain on the skin), antidepressants, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), immunosuppressant procedures (such as plasma exchange), physical therapy, and surgery.
Experimental Treatment with PBM
In a pattern we have seen in this blog many times before, consumer-oriented medical sites such as that of the Mayo Clinic don’t usually mention experimental treatments, even if they’re promising. A January 2017 study published in Gynecologic Oncology described success with photobiomodulation (PBM). The study’s authors enrolled 70 neuropathy patients in a test that sounds like the gold standard in clinical studies: “a randomized, double-blinded, sham-controlled, cross-over trial.”
They measured each patient’s neuropathy with something called a modified total neuropathy score (mTNS) at the outset of the study, then again at 4, 8, and 16 weeks. One group of patients got PBM (3 times per week for six weeks) and another group got a sham treatment. The results were pretty clear: “Sham-treated patients experienced no significant change in mTNS scores at any point during the primary analysis. PBM patients experienced significant reduction in mTNS scores at all time points.” At the end of the six-week study period, the patients who had received the sham treatment were given a treatment combining PBM and physical therapy. Their mTNS scores improved at that point, but no more than those who had received only PBM.
Caveats and Predictions
All the patients in the study suffered from chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN), and the study produced no findings on how PBM would affect other types of neuropathy, so that question deserves further research.
We can’t say for certain that PBM is useful against all types of neuropathy, but we’ve seen it relieve so many kinds of pain (I wrote about it here in December, for example) that I think I can predict it will be useful with neuropathies other than CIPN as well. In any case, if you have neuropathy, you can test it for yourself. PBM has no known side effects and poses little to no risk. Book a PBM session with us and conduct some further research on your own.