Peripheral neuropathy doesn’t have to control your life or your health. If you suffer from this condition, there are ways to exercise and maintain your fitness.
Is walking good for peripheral neuropathy? How do you start getting into an exercise routine? How can you stay safe?
Today, we’re answering these questions and more.
What is Peripheral Neuropathy?
The peripheral nervous system is like a “highway” that connects nerve signals to the spinal cord and brain. This includes:
- Sensory nerves, which are responsible for temperature, touch reception and pain.
- Motor nerves, which control your muscle movements.
- Autonomic nerve, which regulates bodily functions—breathing, heart rate, digestion.
As an example, when you pick up a cup of coffee, these nerves would send a sensory signal to the brain and spinal cord that lets us know whether the cup is hot or cold. It’s these same nerves that would let the brain and spinal cord know if your hands or feet were cold.
These nerves also carry messages from the central nervous system—brain and spinal cord—to the rest of the body. But when the peripheral nerves are damaged, the message that these nerves send either doesn’t go through or becomes distorted.
Damage to the peripheral nerves can send “false” signals. As an example, your hand or foot could be in pain even though nothing has happened to cause you pain. But, these damaged nerves can distort the message so if you stub your toe, they won’t send the signal that you’re in pain.
What Causes Peripheral Neuropathy?
While diabetes is one of the most common causes of nerve damage, there are a number of other reasons why one may develop peripheral neuropathy.
Your peripheral nerves could be damaged or severed in a sporting or car accident. But peripheral neuropathy can also develop from pressure being placed on a nerve or from doing repetitive movements, like typing on your computer for hours every day.
People who have autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus could develop peripheral neuropathy. Cancerous tumours can place pressure on nerves or when nerves become damaged by the body’s immune response to the treatment—chemotherapy treatments and medications.
Viral and bacterial infections like HIV, Hepatitis B, shingles or leprosy can cause nerve damage that leaves one with peripheral neuropathy. But there are medical disorders that one may inherit—like Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease—that can cause damage to the peripheral nervous system.
Other reasons that could lead to peripheral neuropathy are:
- Diseases like connective tissue disorders—lupus or Churg-Strauss syndrome—and liver or kidney disease
- Exposure to toxic chemicals
- Vitamin deficiencies
What are Symptoms of Peripheral Neuropathy?
Depending on the nerves that are damaged in your peripheral system—sensory, motor or autonomic nerves—the symptoms could vary slightly.
With that being said, common symptoms include numbness or tingling in the hands and feet. This numbness and tingling can spread into your arms and legs.
You may have a sensitivity to touch or experience burning, sharp or throbbing pain. You may even feel as if you’re wearing socks or gloves on your hands when you’re not.
Some people aren’t able to feel pain even if you’ve hurt yourself, or you may have an increase in pain even if you haven’t injured yourself.
If you’re experiencing poor balance—loss of coordination—or the awareness of the movement of your body or your body’s position, then you could be suffering from peripheral neuropathy.
When the autonomic nerves are affected then you may find that you have a problem sweating—either sweating too much or not at all—or have heat intolerance. You may also notice changes in your blood pressure, which could cause dizziness or you may have bowel and bladder problems.
How Lifestyle Changes Can Help Peripheral Neuropathy
If you have peripheral neuropathy, there are some changes you can make to your lifestyle that can help you manage the symptoms.
Getting regular exercise will not only help you control your blood sugar levels—especially if you have diabetes—but it will also help you improve your muscle strength. This can help reduce cramps and reduce the pressure on peripheral blood vessels, as well as reduce the pain.
Elevating your feet will also help neuropathy (and feel good as well).
Eat a healthy and balanced diet that includes fresh produce, whole grains, nuts and fish. This will help to improve your gut function and reduce symptoms like constipation or incontinence. A healthy diet will help with nutrient—vitamin—deficiencies especially if your peripheral neuropathy was caused through a vitamin deficiency.
If you smoke, then you’re putting yourself at risk to develop peripheral neuropathy as it damages and narrows the peripheral blood vessels. This can exacerbate nerve damage, even if smoking isn’t the primary cause of peripheral neuropathy.
Reduce the amount of alcohol that you consume, as it can affect the levels of vital vitamins and minerals that the body needs for the nerves to function properly. Nerve damage that’s caused through excessive consumption of alcohol may not be able to be reversed. But you can prevent further nerve damage by reducing your alcohol consumption.
Research has shown that people with peripheral neuropathy who exercise see an improvement in their balance, and they don’t have to worry about falling over. It also shows that their strength increases.
When you exercise you get the blood pumping, which improves blood circulation. This helps to deliver nutrient and oxygen-rich blood to the muscles and this increase of oxygen helps to strengthen the nerve tissues.
Low-impact exercise like walking or swimming can help to improve muscle strength—reducing muscular atrophy—maintain mobility and flexibility, increase endurance, improve neuropathic pain and to help one maintain a healthy body weight.
But besides the physical benefits of exercise, you’ll also find that it enhances your mood, helping to fight depression.
Regular exercise reduces the amount of stress hormones that are released into your body and increases the level of endorphins that are released. Endorphins help provide pain relief, as well as help you sleep better at night.
How to Walk Safely With Neuropathy
1. Talk With Your Doctor First
Most people with neuropathy will be able to walk safely and effectively, but it’s always best to chat to your medical professional before you start any exercise routine.
Every form of neuropathy is different and the way in which your body responds—or doesn’t respond—to walking would depend on your symptoms.
Your doctor would be in the best position to advise you on the best way to approach walking, especially if you experience numbness or a loss of sensation in your feet and legs. This way, you can walk safely while reaping the benefits.
2. Invest in the Right Equipment
Before you go for a walk, make sure you have everything that you need. If you’re worried about your balance, invest in a treadmill. This will help you to get started as you can hold on to the rails to stabilize yourself, walk on an even surface and control the pace and the duration of the walk. Once you’re more confident in your mobility, you can look at walking outside.
Whether you’re walking on a treadmill at home or outside, you’re going to need a pair of shoes for neuropathy that suit your needs. Look at shoes that will provide adequate cushioning and shock absorption, as this will reduce the shock of impact on your joints.
Your shoes should have a thumb width’s space between the big toe and the end of the shoe. The shoe must have a spacious toe box, as this will reduce the risk of injury and pressure points forming on your foot.
Don’t wear cotton socks! Instead, look at neuropathy socks that are made from fabrics that draw moisture away from your skin, as this will reduce friction and prevent sores or blisters from forming that you may not feel. Compression socks can help ease pain as well.
Consider taking your phone or smartwatch when walking. This will help you figure out how far and fast you walked. Watching your progress improve is a great way to keep up your new healthy habit!
3. Start Slowly
There’s no need to go for an hour-long walk on your first day! Start by walking for 10 minutes—on the treadmill or outside—and then stop and check your feet. Make sure that there are no areas of broken skin or increased redness.
You can slowly increase the regularity of your walks, as an example, from every fourth day to every third day until you’re walking every second day. After every week, look at increasing the distance by 5%.
Depending on your symptoms, mobility and flexibility, you can look at gradually increasing your walking speed, but always walk at a speed that you’re comfortable with.
Tips for Getting Into Walking
Before you go for a walk, take 5 to 10 minutes to stretch as this will warm your body up and prepare it for the walk.
You’ll want to do dynamic stretches, as they will help to improve flexibility and mobility, engage the muscle groups and increase blood flow. This will reduce your risk of injury, and you may be less likely to experience tingling or numbness while walking.
If you’re going to be walking outdoors, then try to walk on flat ground, like a track or a park that doesn’t have any hills. This will help you to increase your leg strength—develop muscle—without your legs fatiguing too quickly.
When you’re done with your walk, check your feet for any blisters or increased redness. Put on a pair of neuropathy slippers to help you relax.
You can use ice to help reduce the pain and inflammation of the muscles as soon as you’ve finished exercising. Only use heat on the affected areas 48 to 72 hours after you’ve trained, as this can help your body to recover properly.