Monday, May 07, 2012

A Simple Treatment for Taxol Chemotherapy-Induced Peripheral Neuropathy

About six years ago I started working at a cancer treatment center whose principal doctors, bless their hearts, were open to the idea of their patients utilizing acupuncture as part of their supportive care.  Before I started, I had to attend an interview with the doctors.  One of them asked me if acupuncture could treat peripheral neuropathy.  I wasn't even sure what that was, but automatically replied "Yes!" because I really wanted the job.  Then I went home and read up on neuropathy.  As it turns out, peripheral neuropathy is the medical term for the the numbness, tingling, and pain that can be caused by a number of things, including certain types of chemotherapy.

Sure enough, pretty soon I started seeing patients who complained of exactly these symptoms.  Some got it in the feet.  Most got it in the hands, particularly in the pads of their fingers.  A few got it in their fingernails, resulting in loose nails that seemed like they were on their way to falling out.  Most of these patients were being treated for breast cancer and were on a regimen of the chemotherapeutic agent called Taxol.  A few had other cancers and were on other drugs, such as cisplatin or oxaliplatin.  I tried all kinds of approaches to treat the neuropathy, from standard acupuncture to non-insertive Japanese acupuncture to cold laser to electrostim.  Nothing seemed to help very much.

One day I was inspired to bleed my next neuropathy patient.  In the style of Japanese acupuncture that I practice, we are taught to make a tiny incision and draw a small amount of blood wherever we find "blood stasis."  Typically, blood stasis is indicated by small purplish venules, which we then prick and squeeze to extract a few drops of blood.  But, it occurred to me, the numbness and tingling that characterize peripheral neuropathy could also be symptoms of blood stasis, even with no obvious venules.  So, using a lancet, I bled my next patient, making a small incision near the center of each fingerpad, three or four millimeters from the fingernail.  Quite miraculously, this seemed to work quite well!  In some cases, the neuropathy decreased right there on the table.  In most cases, several such treatments eliminated the symptoms.  Some took longer, and those who had had chemo months or years before and still suffered from neuropathy took the longest.  This technique seems to work well for Taxol but not for the other drugs.  And it works better on the hands than on the feet, though I have had success with foot neuropathy as well.  It is less effective for nailbed neuropathy, even when the causative agent is Taxol (I still do bleed for nailbed neuropathy, though at the corners of the nails rather than on the fingerpads).

I'm not sure why it works, scientifically speaking.  I doubt that it's due to the elimination of toxic chemo agents from the flesh of the fingertips, since the amount of extracted blood is so small.  My suspicion is that the healing is a hormetic effect, which is to say a very small negative impact makes the body respond with a positive effect.  I theorize that the body reacts to the incision by sending chemicals to repel any microbial invaders and heal the wound, and almost as a side effect the affected nerves are also healed.  Perhaps the small capillaries in the extremities are affected by the chemo and work less efficiently than they need to to draw the drug away from the nerves there.  Then, when the skin gets pricked, they perk up and do their job better.

I am not a researcher and have done no true clinical studies on this method, though it would be easy enough to do with a large enough patient population.  But my own experience convinces me that this is a valuable and simple treatment method for Taxol-induced peripheral neuropathy, so I am putting it out there in the hope that it will help many more people.  If you are suffering from chemo-induced neuropathy, I encourage you to try it yourself, or have somebody else do it for you.  Just get a pack of lancets at the drugstore (the kind diabetics use to get a drop of blood), and disinfect before and after with rubbing alcohol to avoid any potential infection (especially if your white blood cell count is low).  Very quickly poke each affected fingerpad, then squeeze out 5-20 drops of blood and wipe with a cotton ball.  Do this a couple times a week for a couple weeks, to give it a fair shake.  Good luck!

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