Causes and Treatment for Neuropathy
Neuropathy – Many people have never even heard the word, let alone know what it means.
However, for diabetics, those four syllables can pack quite a punch. For those who’ve heard it from their doctor’s mouth, it’s a disturbing diagnosis. A loss of sensation due to nerve damage, neuropathy is one of the most common complications of diabetes and, according to the 2011 Diabetes Fact Sheet, approximately 60-70% of diabetics are afflicted with at least a mild case. When mild cases become not-so-mild, the condition can be downright debilitating.
The risk is twofold: To start, the lack of feeling sometimes affects an individual’s ability to balance properly. This is a particularly serious threat for elderly diabetics, who already have a greater likelihood of falling and, consequently, becoming injured or disabled. Second, and perhaps most dangerous, is the threat of chronic wounds. Since a person with neuropathy is often totally numb in the hands and feet, injuries as small as a blister or a splinter can go unnoticed until the opening eventually expands into a fully exposed diabetic ulcer. Because oxygen and blood flow is restricted in neuropathic tissues, these wounds can go months, even years, without healing. The Amputee Coalition reports that 14-24% of patients with diabetic foot ulcers are forced to undergo an amputation.
Fortunately, recent developments in medical technology have provided options for managing neuropathy. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is offering another method for healing chronic wounds, even when treatments like surgical debridement and antibiotics have failed. Preventative measures are also advancing, specifically with the use of infrared light therapy to improve circulation and retain sensation.
Hope in Hyperbaric Oxygen
Dr. Lauren Schwartz, D.P.M. is certified in hyperbaric medicine, and houses four hyperbaric oxygen chambers at her office in Great Neck, New York. In addition to treating a wide variety of diagnoses, the chambers have proven useful aids in diabetic wound care.
“Hyperbaric oxygen can be extremely helpful,” Schwartz explains. “…it is considered a last resort therapy, meaning that all conservative and traditional treatments have been tried and failed.” Sessions in the hyperbaric chamber are referred to as “dives,” a reference to the pressurized environment they create, similar to that experienced underwater by scuba divers. During treatment, damaged cells are saturated with 100% oxygen, bypassing the need for the circulatory system to relay healing oxygen to the wound site on its own. According to Schwartz, “oxygen treatments can actually help revascularize the area and heal infections.” She has seen the benefits in her own patients: “[They’re] useful for superficial wounds, deep wounds, and even wounds that have penetrated to bone.”
The side effects of hyperbaric oxygen therapy are minimal, generally confined to occasional discomfort in the ears and sinuses, like a passenger on an airplane might experience during takeoff. “Hyperbaric treatments are extremely safe,” Schwartz says. “They’re safe for children; they’re safe for adults and they’re safe for athletes. They’re even safe for animals.” As such, hyperbaric medicine is slowly becoming better recognized for its valuable role in healing diabetic ulcers.
“It’s never too late to heal a wound,” insists Schwartz, adding, “When patients come here, they’ve been told that they need an amputation, that their wound is never going to heal, and they’ve basically lost hope…I can say to this patient, ‘we are going to do everything we can to heal your wound. We’re going to do everything we can to save your limb.’ And, more often than not, we can do this.”
Prevention and Maintenance
Anodyne® Therapy has been around for the past fifteen years or so, but its benefits remain largely unknown to the general public. The treatment works by applying infrared light to the neuropathic tissue, thereby dilating blood vessels in the area and increasing circulation.
Karen Eckardt, P.T. frequently uses Anodyne® to help diabetic patients in the offices of Panetta Physical Therapy, located throughout Long Island, New York. “Diabetic neuropathy is a progressive disease,” she explains. “[Infrared light therapy] is the first successful, non-invasive, drug-free treatment that restores neural sensation…By restoring adequate circulation, Anodyne® may reverse neuropathy and delay the onset of ulcerations that often lead to amputation in diabetics.”
The treatment is usually pain-free. “Anodyne® therapy feels like a comfortable warmth,” says Eckardt. “Tingling and pulsing may be felt as circulation returns to the area. Some patients with extremely poor sensation experience some discomfort or hypersensitivity initially. This usually resolves with 3-6 treatments.” Each session lasts approximately half an hour and, Eckardt notes, “many patients notice a difference after the first treatment.”
The treatment is available from certified providers, though home units can also be purchased directly from the company. At Panetta Physical Therapy, Anodyne® is usually incorporated into a patient’s therapy program, which can help to improve gait, balance, flexibility, strength, and endurance. Patients also benefit from hands-on manual physical therapy, in combination with infrared light treatments. Additionally, while most insurance companies do not yet cover Anodyne®, they generally cover physical therapy in full. In this way, neuropathy sufferers can actually receive a more complete treatment regimen, including infrared light, for a greatly reduced out-of-pocket cost.
In Eckardt’s experience, infrared light therapy has been immensely helpful for diabetics. “[It’s] able to improve foot circulation and sensation, and when used in conjunction with physical therapy, is able to significantly improve balance and gait, reduce fall risk, and reduce the incidence of falls.”
Essentially, it allows people to hold onto their independence. Between the healing effects of hyperbaric oxygen and the circulatory revival offered by Anodyne® therapy, the future is looking up for neuropathy sufferers.
Written by Danielle Poupore