Neuropathy refers to symptoms arising when peripheral nerves (outside of the brain and spinal cord) are damaged. Symptoms of neuropathy most typically involve pain, burning, numbness, or tingling in the limbs. There are numerous causes of neuropathy, including infection, medication side effects, traumatic injury to the local area or to the back, diabetes and metabolic disorders, exposure to toxins, inflammatory conditions, or poor nutrition. Over half of the patients who experience neuropathy have no known cause – this is called idiopathic neuropathy. Neuropathy can affect the motor nerves – leading to dysfunction of muscle movement. It can also affect the sensory nerves, leading to an inability to feel sensation, including temperature and touch. Neuropathy can be cured in some cases by treating the underlying condition. Some pharmaceutical treatments deal with the symptoms of neuropathy – pain and numbness – with varying degrees of success.
Acupuncture can help greatly with the symptoms of neuropathy. Commonly seen conditions in our clinic that fall into this category include carpal tunnel syndrome, diabetic neuropathy of the feet, tingling in the arms or legs from a pinched nerve in the neck or back, sciatica, Bell’s Palsy, post-herpetic neuralgia, and more complex neurological diseases. In treating neuropathy, we usually combine a number of approaches to achieve the most effective results.
Just as every person is unique, so is every case of neuropathy. From a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) perspective, neuropathy can be caused by any number of imbalances within the body. For example, in TCM, numbness and tingling are caused from a weakness in the blood energy of the body. Therefore, we choose points on the body to strengthen the blood energy. This weakness, however, is often caused from energy being stuck and not moving properly through the channels. Therefore these blood-strengthening points are combined with points that circulate energy through the limbs. Sometimes this stuck energy causes fluid to build up – both in the joints and in the tissues. This is called dampness, and can cause a heavy sensation, lack of sensation, or burning (if combined with heat). In this case, points that help with fluid transformation in the body are also included. Some neuropathy manifests as excessive itchiness along a nerve pathway. This is called “wind” from a TCM perspective, which often arises from a weakness in the blood energy. In this case, points on the hands and along the back of the skull are added to release wind from the body. We also look at the underlying cause of the neuropathy, so that treatment can address the root of the problem and not just the symptoms. We therefore include body points to rectify constitutional imbalances.
This TCM approach is often combined with more modern medical understandings of the body. We frequently needle points along the spine whose nerve root corresponds to the affected body area. (See diagram). In the case of something like sciatica or a pinched nerve, we also needle the motor points of muscles around the impingement to relax the tissues and give the nerve the space it needs. Adjunctive TCM techniques can help greatly with neuropathy, too, such as tuina (Chinese bodywork and massage), electroacupuncture (particularly along the spine), and even bloodletting. Bloodletting sounds terrible, but it isn’t. Bloodletting involves pricking acupuncture points to get a few drops of blood out. This greatly helps blood and energy to move better through the channels. For neuropathy in the hands or feet, we usually bloodlet points on the ends of the fingers and toes. Many patients feel immediate relief of symptoms following a bloodletting treatment, which begins to hold more and more over time.
In short, neuropathy is just as complex as the individual who experiences it. By looking at the complete constellation of symptoms, the acupuncturist determines which points are most appropriate and which treatments will be most effective. Luckily for all involved, acupuncture treatment does often reduce or eliminate symptoms, allowing patients to go about their daily lives unencumbered by pain, numbness, or other discomfort.