Can acupuncture treat neuropathy, aka nerve pain?
My first experience treating neuropathy was during my internship at the Aliveness Project in 2001 or 2002. This was a clinic devoted to treating HIV/ AIDS and quite a few patients suffered from neuropathy that was a side effect of what was called the AIDS cocktail. This cocktail is a chemotherapy treatment mix of 3 or more potent drugs used that slowed the spread of the virus in the body. Acupuncture proved effective in helping with their drug related nerve pain.
But those cocktails aren’t the most prevalent chemotherapy induced neuropathy. In my practice it has been cancer treatment induced nerve pain. In fact it is estimated that 30-40 percent of people undergoing drug based cancer treatments will have some form of neuropathy. Luckily they also respond to acupuncture treatment.
Over 100 different causes of neuropathy have been identified including from diabetes, heart disease, and excessive alcohol consumption. Furthermore an estimated 20-30 percent of all cases are classified as idiopathic or of unknown origin. Of these I have found the diabetic and idiopathic types harder to treat. I have never treated alcoholic neuropathy.
With nerve pain, as with most conditions, the longer the disharmony has been going on and the more severe it is the longer it may take to treat.
I have found that people already taking gabapentin do not respond well to acupuncture. Gabapentin works by changing the way the nerves communicate with the brain to dull the pain. This also seems to dull the effect of acupuncture on the nerves and the brain.
Since acupuncture not only acts through the nervous system but also through effects on the circulatory system, the immune system as well as the muscles, tendons and fascial systems there is some hope at treating neuropathy even while on gabapentin but I recommend working with your doctor alongside of the acupuncture to try to reduce the dosage of gabapentin.
Good circulation of qi, blood and fluids is essential for health and to any acupuncture treatment, but is especially important when treating the feet. Therefore when treating neuropathy it is helpful to do foot soaks at home. I make three types of foot soaks, each with a different emphasis. The hot water brings more blood circulation and the herbs are absorbed through the skin to treat the local tissues directly. I have one that is more for feet that are cold to the touch, one that is for nourishing and loosening the tissues that is especially used for old injuries like sprains, and one that works more on the bloods microcirculation for people with dry cracked heels, dark veins or dark scaled skin on their lower legs.
Neuropathy often takes more treatment than other kinds of pain. I generally recommend twice a week sessions for the first two or three weeks to start acupuncture treatments. However with neuropathy I recommend two treatments a week for 4 to 8 weeks. That may be in part because by the time people try acupuncture it has typically been a problem for many years. Most types of neuropathy take a long time to develop and start mild so this is understandable.