Peripheral neuropathy, which causes numbness, pain and tingling sensations in your hands and feet, is caused by nerve damage that can result from injury, infection, and disease, including diabetes. If you experience unusual tingling, weakness or pain in your feet or hands, Mayo Clinic advises seeing your doctor immediately for prompt diagnosis and treatment. Doctors often treat peripheral neuropathy with prescription medications, including pain relievers and gabapentin. Herbalists and physicians alike sometimes recommend capsaicin -- a chemical derived from hot peppers -- to alleviate peripheral neuropathy symptoms. Consult your doctor before taking capsaicin.
Hot peppers -- botanically known as Capsicum anuum and Capsicum frutescens and also called chili peppers and cayenne peppers -- belong to the Solanaceae family, a group of tropical plants. The use of hot peppers by humans dates back to antiquity; historians believe that South American Indians were cooking peppers as early as 7000 B.C. In addition to being employed as a seasoning and a vegetable, hot peppers have been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda and folk medicine to relieve sinus congestion, headache and muscle pain.
Constituents and Effects
Hot peppers contain capsaicin -- a chemical compound with both irritant and analgesic properties -- as well as carotenoid plant pigments, steroid saponins, and the flavonoid glycosides apiin and luteolin. The antioxidant vitamins A and C are also present, as are the compounds capsanthin, alpha-carotin, and violaxanthine. Drugs.com credits capsaicin with antioxidant and pain-relieving effects. According to biochemist Holly Phaneuf, Ph.D., capsaicin works on pain by binding to the VR 1 receptors and stripping nerves of substance P, a pain-signaling neurotransmitter. Capsaicin tends to be more effective on chronic pain -- such as that of peripheral neuropathy -- rather than pain that is short-term and acute. It is currently being studied for its effects on pain associated with diabetic and HIV neuropathy.
In a clinical study published in 2002 in "Acta Diabetol" in which topical capsaicin was applied to the feet of patients with symptomatic diabetic neuropathy, capsaicin was found to improve symptoms, including pain perception threshold. Researchers concluded that capsaicin cream was effective in improving symptoms of diabetic neuropathy, without causing adverse effects on nerve fiber function.
Usage and Considerations
Over-the-counter pain-relieving topical cream is available in concentrations ranging from .025 percent to .075 percent capsaicin. Don't allow capsaicin to contact cuts, wounds, the eyes or mucous membranes. Drugs.com notes that allergic reactions to capsaicin have been reported; an allergy to mugwort, celery, fennel, birch pollen and anise may make a reaction more likely. If adverse reactions occur, Phaneuf recommends removing capsaicin cream with diluted vinegar.