Virginia Barber first noticed a tingling in her feet when she was hiking in 2000.
The sensation was mild; she assumed her feet were just sore from the terrain. Throughout the next year, she noticed the tingling after being on her feet for long periods of time.
But the tingling sensation reached a new level — excruciating pain — after a hike on Mount Hood in 2001. The pain subsided by the time Barber returned to her Vancouver home.
Barber continued to hike but took frequent breaks to rest her feet. By 2002, Barber had to give up hiking as the breaks became more and more necessary.
By 2005, the pain had increased to the point that Barber couldn’t function. Nothing could distract her from the pain in her feet.
That year, she was diagnosed with idiopathic peripheral neuropathy. Peripheral neuropathy is described as damage to the peripheral nervous system, which is the network that transmits information from the brain and spinal cord to every other part of the body, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Peripheral neuropathy can be caused by various conditions, trauma or autoimmune disorders. In some people, like Barber, the cause is unknown. In those cases, it’s referred to as idiopathic peripheral neuropathy.
The damage to the nerves can cause a range of symptoms from temporary numbness, tingling, and pricking sensations to burning pain and muscle wasting. In the most common forms of neuropathy, the nerve fibers most distant from the brain and the spinal cord malfunction first. Pain and other symptoms often appear symmetrically, for example, in both feet followed by a gradual progression up both legs, according to the National Institutes of Health.
That was the case with Barber. Eventually, the tingling and burning sensation in her feet began to crawl up her legs. She was prescribed pain medications to ease the pain of the progressive disease, but she didn’t want to rely solely on the drugs.
“The less medication you need to take, the better,” the 80-year-old said.
Last spring, Barber signed up for a pain-management class offered by Kaiser Permanente. The class is designed to help people who suffer with chronic pain to better manage their pain, said Teresa Keane, a nurse practitioner in Kaiser’s pain-management clinic.
“For most pain patients, the medications will, at best, reduce their pain by 30 percent,” she said. “Often, if they only take medications, the pain creeps back up.”
The multidisciplinary approach teaches physical, mental and emotional strategies to manage pain, Keane said. In the eight-week course, Barber learned several alternative methods.
The first thing Barber does when she wakes up in the morning is medi
tate for 30 minutes. The pain medication she takes makes her groggy in the morning. The meditation helps her body to wake up, she said.
The class also taught Barber the location of pressure points in her feet, so she can target the problem areas when she gives herself a massage. A physical therapist taught Barber how to align her body to help her fall asleep.
She also learned how to became more aware of her own body and pay attention to where her body carries tension. She realized the importance of deep breathing. Barber had used deep breathing during yoga, but she never thought to use it to help manage her chronic pain.
She’s also learned the importance of pacing herself. When she wears herself too thin, Barber gets sidelined by pain flares.
Distractions are also helpful. While on her feet cooking dinner, Barber listens to books on tape. Other times, she’ll take a break from her day and paint, a favorite activity for the lifelong artist.
In addition, she exercises as much as possible, usually twice-daily sessions on a stationary bicycle.
Barber said she’s also benefitted greatly from acupuncture. The regular treatments have kept the pain from extending beyond her knees, she said.
“I worried it would go up,” Barber said. “Acupuncture keeps it at bay.”
The acupuncture combined with the other methods have had other benefits, as well. The pain flare-ups that crippled Barber at least once a week have been reduced dramatically. She’s had only three in the past year.
While the neuropathy has forced Barber to give up some of the activities she enjoys, namely hiking, the alternative therapies have given her more freedom to continue living her life.