An estimated 20 million Americans have some form of peripheral nerve damage. Most people with diabetes (70%) have some nerve damage. Nerve damage isn’t easy to live with. It can be painful (or the opposite – completely numb), and it’s an ongoing battle. But here’s the good news: Healing damaged nerves is possible. Let’s look at how nerves heal themselves, how long damaged nerves take to heal, and what you can do to speed up the process.
How Do Damaged Nerves Heal Themselves?
Peripheral nerves – the nerves that connect our organs and limbs to the central nervous system – have an amazing ability to regenerate themselves after an injury.
These nerves are long cells. Their nucleus is in the spinal cord, and axons extend out to send nerve messages all the way down the leg (or other areas of the body). If a peripheral nerve gets cut, all of the axons below the injury start to degenerate.
Regrowing and reforming this connection is hard work. It requires both ends to find each other through damaged tissue.
A special type of cells, called Schwann cells, play an important role in this process. These cells are wrapped around axons, and when there’s an injury, they get to work rebuilding the bridge. These cells can’t do all the work by themselves. They enlist the help of fibroblasts, a type of cell that plays a role in wound healing.
Fibroblasts send out a signal telling Schwann cells to get to work. Schwann cells, following their orders, break up into cords (or clumps) and find their way out as a group. These cords show axons the way, guiding them across the injured site.
It’s not a perfect process, but it works, and scientists are trying to find ways to improve it. It all comes down to that important signal sent out by fibroblasts. Without it, Schwann cells wouldn’t move in an organized group and axons wouldn’t grow back properly.
How Long Do Damaged Nerves Take to Heal?
Like with any other type of injury, healing is different for everyone. Some people heal faster or slower than others – and that’s okay. As you can see, the regeneration process is complicated and lots of things can go wrong in the process.
Healing time will depend on a few things:
- The severity of the injury
- Type of injury
If you bruised – not cut – your nerves, healing may only take 6-12 weeks. If your nerve was cut, the process will take much longer. After 4 weeks of rest, a severed nerve grows at a rate of about 1mm per day.
Sensory nerves are really resilient. They can recover months or even years after an injury. Motor nerves, however, do have a time limit for recovery. After 18-24 months of inactivity, the nerve dies and can’t be reactivated. The only way to reconnect to the muscle is through the surgical repair of the nerves, and even that has to happen within 12-18 months of the injury.
Healing Damaged Nerves Using Natural Therapies
While it’s important to follow your doctor’s recommendations for treatment, there are some natural therapies that show promising results.
Creatine is one of the most popular and researched supplements for muscle strength and growth. It’s a natural substance created by three amino acids: arginine, glycine, and methionine. Creatine is naturally produced by the liver, pancreas, and kidneys, but you can also get it from animal protein sources, like meat and fish.
Creatine fuels the cells in your body by increasing stored adenosine triphosphate, or ATP.
In one animal study, mice with spinal cord injuries were given creatine. Researchers found that, compared to the control group, mice that were fed creatine had increased axon regrowth after an injury. Creatine-fed mice had more robust nerve growth compared to those in the control group.
Sometimes, peripheral nerve damage is caused by vitamin B deficiency. B vitamins play an important role in nerve function and health.
One review from 2017 found that B vitamin supplements may help promote nerve repair.
Taking a B complex supplement is the simplest solution, but the most important B vitamins for nerve health are:
- B-1: Helps prevent cell damage while reducing pain and inflammation
- B-12: When B-12 levels are too low, it can cause permanent nerve damage
- B-6: Helps maintain healthy nerve endings
If supplements aren’t your thing, you can add foods to your diet that are rich in B vitamins, such as:
- Meat, fish, and poultry
- Fortified cereal
- Low-fat dairy
The amino acid acetyl-L-carnitine also acts as an antioxidant. It helps promote healthy nerve cell creation and higher energy levels while reducing pain.
One study from 2016 found that this amino acid helped cancer patients with fatigue and peripheral sensory neuropathy caused by chemotherapy.
Acetyl-L-carnitine is available as a supplement, but you can also get it from meat, fish, dairy, and poultry products.
Fish oil is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have potent anti-inflammatory effects. But there is also evidence that fish oil can help repair damaged nerves while alleviating pain and soreness.
One 2017 review looked at the effects of fish oil for treating diabetic peripheral neuropathy. The results showed that fish oil may help slow the progression or even reverse diabetic neuropathy. The neuroprotective effects of fish oil can help trigger neuron growth.
Fish oil is easy to find in supplement form, but you can also incorporate fatty fish into your diet to get more omega-3 fatty acids.
This culinary spice is also used for medicinal purposes in Ayurveda. Turmeric contains curcumin, a compound that has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and analgesic properties. It can also help with tingling and numbness in your hands and feet.
One animal study found that curcumin helped mice with chemotherapy-induced neuropathy. The curcumin helped reduced pain, functional loss, and inflammation. The mice also had improved calcium and antioxidant levels.
Other research suggests that turmeric may help when taken in the early stages of neuropathy to prevent the onset of chronic pain.
A turmeric supplement is the easiest way to get more of this spice into your diet. The biggest issue with turmeric is that it isn’t well absorbed by the body. Research shows that piperine (a compound found in black pepper) can help greatly improve absorption, so make sure that your supplement contains black pepper or piperine.
Damaged nerves can cause pain, discomfort, or even loss of function. These natural therapies may help speed up the healing process and give you some relief along the way.