Managing peripheral neuropathy by staying active
Regular and gentle exercise is a self-management strategy that can have considerable benefits for people living with peripheral neuropathy – a common side-effect of some blood cancers and their treatment.
Exercise not only maintains good general health but also creates a good environment for nerves to repair by improving blood circulation and the oxygen supply to the nerves.
What is peripheral neuropathy?
Peripheral neuropathy (PN) is a broad term that describes any changes to the nerves and their function in the body’s extremities, most commonly in the hands and feet. This means the affected nerves don’t work properly, which results in numbness or pain in the affected areas.
PN can be caused by certain blood cancer treatments or even by the disease itself. Treatments such as thalidomide (Thalomid®), bortezomib (Velcade®), and vincristine (Oncovin®) – part of the VAD chemotherapy regimen, can damage the nerve cells, particularly when given in high doses.
Symptoms of PN include:
- Numbness, tingling, cramps or pain in your fingers and hands, or your toes and feet.
- Problems standing or walking.
- Difficulty in feeling the difference between hot and cold water.
- Difficulty holding or controlling objects.
- Difficulty opening jars.
- Dizziness or blurred vision.
If you start to notice any of the symptoms of neuropathy, it is very important to tell your treating doctor/specialist immediately. If they are related to your drug therapy, then treatment with that drug may need to be stopped or the dose reduced.
Managing your PN
The key to managing PN lies in removing or reducing the cause and treating the symptoms.
A variety of remedies have been reported by people with PN as being useful in easing the symptoms, and most people learn what helps them by trial and error.
These include medications (useful in managing pain or discomfort), eating a well-balanced diet (to protect the nervous system), drinking plenty of water (to stay hydrated), massage (can relieve pain and discomfort), meditation (to reduce muscle tension), and exercise.
Exercises for PN
Gentle and regular exercise can help reduce the symptoms of peripheral neuropathy by maintaining good blood flow to your hands and feet.
However, keeping active can be a challenge for many of those who are experiencing PN, due to muscle fatigue and lactic acid build-up which may contribute to the existing PN symptoms.
It is important to find an exercise that works for you as an individual and which takes into account your current level of fitness, pain issues and any other limitations due to the existing PN.
Before attempting any type of exercise, be sure to consult your haematologist or doctor. For a personal exercise plan that suits your fitness level and other considerations, speak to a physiotherapist or exercise physiologist.
Flexibility exercises (or stretching) can help keep your joints flexible and reduce your chances of injury during other activities. Gentle stretching for 5-10 minutes helps to warm up your body and gets you ready for aerobic activities, such as walking or swimming and includes:
- Calf stretches
- Seated hamstring stretches
- Plantarfascia stretches.
Aerobic exercise increases your heart rate, works your muscles and raises your breathing rate. Aim to maintain a regular aerobic exercise routine of around 30 minutes a day, for 3-5 days a week. If you haven’t been very active prior to starting an exercise regimen, start out by doing 5-10 minutes a day and build up the time you spend each week, or split up your activity throughout the day. You could go for a 10-minute walk after each meal. Some different aerobic exercises to try:
- A gentle walk around the block (or a brisk walk inside, on a treadmill)
- Take a low-impact aerobics class
- Swim or do water aerobic exercises
- Light hand-weights or body-weight training
- Resistance band training
- Ride a stationary bicycle indoors
- Chair yoga or seated exercise.
Keeping your balance system healthy is especially important if you have problems due to illness, such as joint pain, weakness or dizziness. Balance training can help you get back to normal and overcome feelings of stiffness or unsteadiness.
- Kitchen counter calf raises
- Hip flexions
- Hip extensions
- Side let raises.
Strength training exercises help to make the muscles stronger and more injury-resistant. The following exercises can help you regain lost strength in your muscles if done regularly:
- Kitchen counter calf raises
- Chair squats
- Seated dorsiflexion.
For demonstrations of how to do the flexibility, balance and strength exercises:
A video on the Leukaemia Foundation-produced exercise program, Fit to Thrive, can be viewed on our YouTube site. Designed for people living with a blood cancer or disorder, this video includes lying, seated and flexibility exercises.
For more information on exercise and cancer, and for advice about professionals in this field, contact your local blood cancer support coordinator.
Developed by the Leukaemia Foundation in consultation with people living with a blood cancer, Leukaemia Foundation support staff, haematology nursing staff and/or Australian clinical haematologists. This content is provided for information purposes only and we urge you to always seek advice from a registered health care professional for diagnosis, treatment and answers to your medical questions, including the suitability of a particular therapy, service, product or treatment in your circumstances. The Leukaemia Foundation shall not bear any liability for any person relying on the materials contained on this website.