DEAR DOCTOR K:
I have neuropathy pain in my feet. What can I do to relieve it?
Neuropathy, or nerve damage, is a remarkably common problem. I get asked lots of questions about it — both from readers of this column and from readers of the Harvard Health Letter, which I edit. It isn’t considered a “major” health problem by many doctors, because it isn’t potentially fatal. But, like many other problems not labeled as major by doctors, it sure can make people miserable and interfere with their lives.
Fortunately, there are several treatments that bring relief to most people who suffer with this condition. There are different types of neuropathy, but I’ll assume you have the most common type, called axonal neuropathy.
Neuropathy affects many of the nerves in your body. Each nerve is like a highway that connects your brain to the rest of your body. Signals from your brain travel down the nerves sending orders, such as the order for your muscles to move different parts of your body. Signals from your body travel up the nerves to your brain. When your fingers touch something, for example, signals from your fingers tell the brain how cold and how hard that thing is, and whether touching it causes pain.
The longer a nerve is, the more likely it is to be affected by neuropathy. The nerves connecting your brain to your legs and feet are the longest, so the symptoms of neuropathy almost always begin in and are worst in the feet.
The most common symptoms of neuropathy are numbness, burning, or unpleasant sensations that people have a hard time describing. The loss of sensation in the feet can cause problems with balance when walking. If you can’t tell where your weight is being carried (is it on your heels or the balls of your feet?), your brain gets confused.
Among the most common causes of neuropathy are diabetes, alcohol abuse, an underactive thyroid gland and some types of cancer chemotherapy. However, about one out of every four people with neuropathy has none of these known causes.
If you have any of the known causes of neuropathy, the first thing to do is treat the cause. If you’re diabetic, do everything you can to lower your blood sugar. If you drink too much, cut down. If you have an underactive thyroid, take your thyroid pills as directed and get regular thyroid blood tests.
The most widely used medicines for reducing symptoms are an anticonvulsant — either gabapentin (Neurontin) or pregabalin (Lyrica) — and tricyclic drugs, including desipramine. Other anticonvulsants and drugs that decrease the number and severity of muscle spasms also can be helpful, including phenytoin, carbamazepine, topiramate and baclofen.
Not all of these drugs help for everyone. But if you work closely with your doctor, the odds are good that you can find one that will give you considerable relief.