For many, neuropathy becomes a common and difficult part of their life. It’s been estimated that 25-30% of people in the U.S will experience neuropathy at some point in their life. Peripheral neuropathy refers to the nervous system outside of the spinal cord and brain area. It is the nerves that go down into the foot & leg, or into the arms & hands.
The symptoms of Peripheral neuropathy can include burning, tingling, numbness, and oftentimes weakness. It usually affects both feet, but not always – which is why peripheral neuropathy can affect walking. There are many nerve fibers directly underneath the skin called sensory nerves, and when these nerves start to die away it inhibits you from feeling pressure, resulting in not being able to feel your feet on the ground. People may also not be able to feel hot and cold on their feet.
Diabetic neuropathy affects approximately 50-70% of those with diabetes, and when severe can result in ulcers and even amputation.It could start with something as simple as a callous that the patient cannot feel. This then creates an ulcer which can become infected. Oftentimes because there is a lack of feeling, the patient has no pain, and therefore no warning signs. If this results in an amputation, the situation can become life threatening. If you do not have diabetes, it is important to know that many people may be prediabetic, and the first signs can be symptoms of neuropathy in the feet. So if you have never been diagnosed with diabetes, but you’re getting neuropathy symptoms, there’s a chance that you could be pre-diabetic.
There are other types of neuropathy including chemotherapy induced neuropathy and alcoholic neuropathy. Aside from diabetic neuropathy, the most common diagnosis patients are given is idiopathic neuropathy – meaning neuropathy from an unknown cause.
What Are The Benefits Of Walking?
The benefits of walking are both mental and physical. Mentally, exercise has been shown to help people emotionally. Exercise can help increase dopamine levels in the brain (dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that is associated with the feel good sensation you have after exercise).It is also thought that exercise can help you sleep better. The importance of sleep has become more apparent as it not only helps you feel better the next day, but can also help with high blood pressure, cancer and diabetes. Walking may also help to keep your weight down, which can have a big impact on controlling your blood sugar levels, blood pressure and even joint arthritis.
So how does peripheral neuropathy affect your walking? To better understand, I’d like to clarify the three ways neuropathy can have an effect on walking.
Number 1 – PAIN
If you are in a lot of pain from the burning and tingling in your feet, maybe you’ll feel uncomfortable to go on a walk. If the pain is mild, you can still go for a walk, but maybe just not as far as you could before. So if your symptoms are not that painful, that’s even more of a reason to consider walking.
If your pain is manageable while you walk, it’s a good idea to gradually increase the frequency and duration each time you walk. One principle to remember is that your body needs rest days. So rather than walking every day for 25 minutes five or six days per week, it may be better to walk four days for 35-45 minutes. Why? It’s thought that those extra minutes (for example, 35 minutes) tend to rev up your metabolism more for a longer period after the aerobic activity. This leads to more calories burned and better cardiac health. If walking is too painful, consider biking, swimming or pool exercises instead.
Number 2 – NUMBNESS
If your nerves are significantly damaged, you may experience numbness in your feet. This also serves as another factor that suppresses your desire to walk. Why? Because your ability to feel your feet on the ground has been reduced.
When your ability to feel your feet on the ground diminishes, you could feel unstable and possibly walk with a wider gait. In some cases you may even shuffle due to the lack of feeling. This can be a challenge, and it might make you even more susceptible to falling. For this scenario it is best to walk on flat surfaces and avoid walking or hiking on irregular terrain.
Number 3 – WEAKNESS
Another symptom caused by peripheral neuropathy is weakness. This ranges from mild to severe in the case of drop foot, which is when it’s difficult to pull your foot or toes upwards. You could also be experiencing what I call “weakfoot”, meaning it’s difficult to push your foot off the ground. Again, it is most important to avoid irregular terrain, so it is important to consider or experiment with other forms of exercise.
If you have weakness or numbness that is not too severe, and you’re able to walk for exercise, then make sure your shoe selection is good. Generally, a shoe with more support (which is called a motion control shoe) should be used. Additionally, keep an eye on your shoes and make sure you do not overwear them to the point that they start to break down.
These are the ways that neuropathy can affect your walking. Please understand that it is important to seek treatment if you’re experiencing neuropathy. Contrary to what conventional medicine says, you do not have to live with it or take medications. At Anderson Center for Neuropathy and Chronic Pain, we can reverse the symptoms of neuropathies with surgical or non-surgical means.
Walking is one of the best forms of exercise for your mental and physical well-being. We hope this blog gives you a better understanding of neuropathy and how it impacts your walking/exercise regimen.