Chemotherapy-Induced Peripheral Neuropathy

  • Carlos Fernandez MD
  • Zankhana Mehta MD
  • Andrew Espenlaub DO
  • Neil M Ellison MD

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Background    Chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN) is a dose-limiting toxicity for many anti-cancer agents. The incidence of CIPN can be variable, but more common figures are 30–40% of chemotherapy treated patients (1). This Fast Fact will review the clinical features and treatment of CIPN.

Etiology & Risk Factors   Several mechanisms have been postulated to cause CIPN (2). Antineoplastic agents known to cause neuropathies are vinca alkaloids, taxanes, platinum-derived compounds, protease inhibitors (bortezomib), antibodies (brentuximab vedotin), aromatase inhibitors (anastrazole and exemestane), thalidomide, lenalidomide, ixabepilone and interferon alpha. The risk of CIPN is higher in patients previously exposed to chemotherapy, patients over 50 years old, heavy alcohol users, patients with renal or hepatic insufficiency, and those with preexisting neuropathies (4).

Clinical Characteristics   The onset of symptoms can be sudden or slowly progressive. Sensory symptoms generally improve many months after drug discontinuation, but not in all patients. Motor symptoms are less likely to improve over time.

  • Sensory symptoms frequently include tingling, numbness and pain. Motor symptoms include foot drop, wrist drop, and difficulty with fine motor skills, such as buttoning a shirt or holding a pen. Autonomic symptoms include diarrhea, constipa­tion and difficulty breathing.
  • Pain is often reported as burning, freezing, lancinating or electric shock-like. Normal touch can be perceived as painful (al­lodynia) and sensations that would normally be painful can be experienced as excruciating (hyperpathia).
  • Signs include symmetrical glove and stocking sensory deficit, foot or wrist drop, symmetric motor weakness, loss of deep-tendon reflexes, low blood pressure, and irregular heartbeat.
  • The most common pattern of CIPN is an asymptomatic loss of deep tendon reflexes progressing to a sensory and finally motor neuropathy (1). The sever­ity of neuropathy usually increases with treatment dose and duration and then decreases after cessation of treatment. A notable exception is the platinum agents, for which symptoms may prog­ress for weeks to months after treatment completion. This is called the “coasting effect” (3).
  • Oxaliplatin can cause both an acute and chronic neuropathy. The acute process can begin during the drug infusion and include cold-induced paresthesias of the hands, feet, throat, and perioral area. The chronic form is a dose-dependent sensory neuropathy similar to other CIPNs (4).   
  • Vincristine can cause pharyngeal myalgias (sore throat) and autonomic neuropathy manifested by constipation, in addition to a typical axonal neuropathy.

Diagnosis    The diagnosis is largely based on history and neurological examination. Clinicians should consider other than axonal-neuropathies in their differential (e.g. mass lesion causing a radiculopathy), as well as non-chemotherapy causes of a neuropathy (paraneoplastic; non-neoplastic) (3). Nerve conduction studies are helpful when the diagnosis is unclear, but do not have 100% sensitivity or specificity.

Prevention   Many agents have been proposed for preventing neu­ropathy caused by antineoplastic drugs. The mecha­nisms by which most of these drugs may minimize neuropathy are based on limited preclinical data and informed opinion. There are small clinical trials showing positive results with calcium and magnesium infusion, N-acetyl cysteine, glutamine oxcarbamazepine, omega-3-fatty acid and ganglioside-monosialic acid (GM1).  Larger randomized controlled trials are needed to further evaluate whether or not the above agents are truly chemoprotective (5). Recent clinical trials with vitamin E, xaliproden, amifostine, org 2766, nimodipine, recombinant-human leukemia inhibiting factor and diethyldithiocarbamate lack positive results (2). One recent randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of venlafaxine showed a significant reduction of oxaliplatin induced acute neurosensory toxicity (6). Other prevention strategies consist of chemotherapy dose reduction or lower dose intensities, particularly in those patients who are at higher risk to develop CIPN. Non-drug protective measures include hand and feet protection from extremes of temperature (wearing socks, using gloves while cooking), routine inspection for cuts or abrasions, and fall prevention education.

Symptomatic Treatment    Overall the symptomatic treatment of CIPN remains empiric. Small clinical trials have shown positive results with a topical amitriptyline/baclofen/ketamine gel (2). Pregabalin, gabapentin, lamotrigine, alpha lipoic acid, acetyl-l-carnitine, and nortriptyline have not shown efficacy in controlled trials (7-12). One randomized, double-blind, crossover trial showed a small but significant improvement in pain control with duloxetine 60 mg per day compared with placebo (13). Non-pharmacological options, including exercise, acupuncture, and neurostimulation currently lack appropriate evidence to support their efficacy (3). Opioids are empirically recommended as a short-term treatment while waiting for an adjuvant to work or for moderate to severe pain despite the use of an adjuvant.


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  11. Callander N, Markovina S, et al. Acetyl-l-carnitine (ALCAR) for the prevention of chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy in patients with relapsed or refractory multiple myeloma treated with bortezomib, doxorubicin and low-dose dexamethasone: a study from the Wisconsin Oncology Network. Cancer chemotherapy and pharmacology 2014; 74:875-882.
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Authors’ Affiliations: Geisinger Health System, Danville, PA.

Conflicts of Interest Statement: The authors have disclosed no relevant conflicts of interest.

Version History:  Originally published in February 2008 as Fast Facts and Concepts #197, Chemotherapy Associated Peripheral Neuropathy, authored by Drs. Jagdeep Mehr and Neil Ellison. Revised and updated May 2014; and again in July 2015 to reflect emerging research.