What are neurological symptoms? What may contribute to neurological symptoms?

Neurological side effects and symptoms affect or interfere with the function of the brain or nerves. Symptoms are often grouped into central nervous system (CNS) effects on the brain and spinal cord and peripheral effects on any other nerves. Both cancer itself and cancer treatments can cause neurological symptoms and side effects.

Cancer’s direct effects include compression to the brain, spine, or peripheral nerves from tumor growth. Fractures in vertebrae in the spine or swelling caused by cancer can also cause compression and pressure on nerves. Tumors within the brain or pressure from swelling can cause seizures.1Giglio P, Gilbert MR. Neurologic complications of cancer and its treatment. Current Oncology Reports. 2010 Jan;12(1):50-9.

Paraneoplastic syndromes are another neurological effect of cancer. “Paraneoplastic syndromes are a group of rare disorders that are triggered by an abnormal immune system response to a cancerous tumor known as a ‘neoplasm.’ Paraneoplastic syndromes are thought to happen when cancer-fighting antibodies or white blood cells (known as T cells) mistakenly attack normal cells in the nervous system.”2Paraneoplastic Syndromes. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. April 25, 2022. Viewed May 4, 2022.

The most common side effects of cancer treatments are injury to the brain, spine, and peripheral nerves from radiation and peripheral neuropathy from chemotherapy.3Giglio P, Gilbert MR. Neurologic complications of cancer and its treatment. Current Oncology Reports. 2010 Jan;12(1):50-9. Surgery can also damage nerves.4Cancer.Net. Nervous System Side Effects. American Society of Clinical Oncology. February 2018. Viewed May 4, 2022. Chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy is the most researched neurological effect with regard to complementary therapies.

What are the signs of neurological symptoms? 

Neurological effects can be seen in a range of symptoms.5Overview of Nervous System Disorders. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Viewed May 4, 2022; Cancer.Net. Nervous System Side Effects. American Society of Clinical Oncology. February 2018. Viewed May 4, 2022.

Changes in sensation or physical function

Loss of feeling or tingling

Loss of sight or blurred or double vision

Lack of coordination

Muscle rigidity

Tremors and seizures

Hearing loss and/or a ringing in the ears (tinnitus)

Changes in taste and smell

Erectile dysfunction

Muscle-related effects

Weakness or loss of muscle strength

Muscle wasting

Slurred speech

Constipation

Loss of urinary control (incontinence)

Difficulty swallowing

Cognitive effects

Memory loss

Impaired mental ability

Language impairment (expression or comprehension)

Pain-related effects

Persistent or sudden onset of a headache

A headache that changes or is different

Back pain which radiates to the feet, toes, or other parts of the body

Burning or “electrical shock” sensation radiating from the back or other areas

See our Pain handbook for information about managing pain.

What may contribute to neurological symptoms?

Medical conditions

In addition to cancer, these conditions can also increase your risk of neurological symptoms:6Cancer.Net. Nervous System Side Effects. American Society of Clinical Oncology. February 2018. Viewed May 4, 2022.

Infections causing swelling or inflammation of the brain, spinal cord, or inner ear

Infections, such as Lyme disease, shingles, Epstein-Barr virus, hepatitis B and C, and HIV

Diabetes, especially if your sugar levels are poorly controlled

Stroke

Kidney, liver or thyroid disorders

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)

Alzheimer’s disease

Multiple sclerosis

Autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus

Vitamin deficiencies, particularly B vitamins

Managing these conditions if you have them, or reducing your risk of them, could help you avoid their additional burden on your nervous system. 

Medications and therapies

Cancer treatments and some medications used during cancer treatment or for other conditions may trigger neurological symptoms. Check the inserts with any prescription medications you use or ask your pharmacist if you have concerns. 

Complementary therapies that we have reviewed that may trigger neurological symptoms:

Other medications that may trigger or contribute to neurological symptoms:

Acetyl-L-carnitine

Goshajinkigan

Risk factors for neurological symptoms

These situations increase your risk of neurological symptoms such as peripheral neuropathydamage to the peripheral nerves outside the brain and spinal cord:7Peripheral neuropathy. Mayo Clinic. Viewed May 4, 2022; Seretny M, Currie GL et al. Incidence, prevalence, and predictors of chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Pain. 2014 Dec;155(12):2461-2470.

Alcohol misuse

Exposure to toxic substances such as heavy metals—especially lead and mercury—or organophosphorus compounds common in pesticides

Repetitive motion, such as those performed for certain jobs

Family history of neuropathy

Smoking

Authors

Nancy Hepp, MS

Lead Researcher and Program Manager
View profile

Ms. Hepp is a researcher and communicator who has been writing and editing educational content on varied health topics for more than 20 years. She serves as lead researcher, program manager, and writer for CancerChoices. Her graduate work in research and cognitive psychology, her master’s degree in instructional design, and her certificate in web design have all guided her in writing and presenting information for a wide variety of audiences and uses. Nancy’s service as faculty development coordinator in the Department of Family Medicine at Wright State University also provided experience in medical research, plus insights into medical education and medical care from the professional’s perspective.

Nancy Hepp, MS Lead Researcher and Program Manager

Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS

Senior Clinical Consultant
View profile

Laura Pole is senior clinical consultant for CancerChoices. Laura is an oncology clinical nurse specialist who has been providing integrative oncology clinical care, navigation, consultation, and education services for over 40 years. She is the co-creator and co-coordinator of the Integrative Oncology Navigation Training at Smith Center for Healing and the Arts in Washington, DC. Laura also manages the “Media Watch Cancer News That You Can Use” listserv for Smith Center/Commonweal. In her role as a palliative care educator and consultant, Laura has served as statewide Respecting Choices Faculty for the Virginia POST (Physician Orders for Scope of Treatment) Collaborative as well as provided statewide professional education on palliative and end-of-life care for the Virginia Association for Hospices and Palliative Care.

For CancerChoices, Laura curates content and research, networks with clinical and organizational partners, brings awareness and education of integrative oncology at professional and patient conferences and programs, and translates research into information relevant to the patient experience as well as clinical practice.

Laura sees her work with CancerChoices as a perfect alignment of all her passions, knowledge and skills in integrative oncology care. She is honored to serve you.

Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS Senior Clinical Consultant

Reviewer

Sarah Soles, ND

Naturopathic physician
View profile

Dr. Sarah Soles completed her naturopathic medical training at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine. During her internship on the adjunctive cancer care shift, she learned the immense value of combining naturopathic approaches with conventional cancer treatments. Dr. Soles went on to complete a two-year residency in naturopathic cancer care at the Integrated Health Clinic. She continues to help patients in all stages of their cancer journey—from screening and prevention to active treatment or maintaining a remission. She is also the research director for the Knowledge in Naturopathic Oncology Website and a contributing author to the Textbook of Naturopathic Oncology: A Desktop Guide to Integrative Cancer Care.

Sarah Soles, ND Naturopathic physician

Last update: January 8, 2024

Last full literature review: April 2022

CancerChoices provides information about integrativein cancer care, a patient-centered approach combining the best of conventional care, self care, and evidence-informed complementary care in an integrated plan cancer care. We review complementaryin cancer care, complementary care involves the use of therapies intended to enhance or add to standard conventional treatments; examples include supplements, mind-body approaches such as yoga or psychosocialtherapy, and acupuncture therapies and self carelifestyle actions and behaviors that may impact cancer outcomes; examples include eating health-promoting foods, limiting alcohol, increasing physical activity, and managing stress practices to help patients and professionals explore and integrate the best combination of conventionalthe cancer care offered by conventionally trained physicians and most hospitals; examples are chemotherapy, surgery, and radiotherapy and complementary therapies and practices for each person.

Our staff have no financial conflicts of interest to declare. We receive no funds from any manufacturers or retailers gaining financial profit by promoting or discouraging therapies mentioned on this site.

References[+]