Cooling gloves and socks and other methods of cryotherapy may help reduce symptoms of tingling, pain, or numbness in your hands and feet caused by chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN) is a fairly common side effect of certain types of chemotherapy treatments. This type of nerve damage primarily affects areas like the feet and hands. It has often been viewed as an unavoidable trade-off for the use of medications to treat cancer.

Several studies, however, have found that the use of cooling devices during a chemotherapy infusion may help to prevent — or at the very least reduce — some of these chemotherapy side effects.

This article explores how cold gloves and socks might help CIPN, and what to expect if you try this therapy.

Cold gloves and socks have been tested in a number of studies to see if they can help prevent nerve damage that commonly comes after the use of certain types of chemotherapy. This treatment is often referred to as cryotherapy.

The idea behind using cryotherapy to treat CIPN is that vasoconstriction (narrowing of blood vessels) may be able to reduce nerve damage caused by chemotherapy during infusion. Cryotherapy causes your blood vessels to narrow or shrink, which in theory may help reduce the negative effects of these medications.

Chemotherapy neuropathy: Who gets it and what it feels like

Nerve damage is a common side effect of chemotherapy, especially with specific types of chemotherapy. The types of chemotherapy most often linked to CIPN include:

Studies suggest that as many as 68% of people who undergo treatment with these chemotherapy agents experience negative side effects within a month of starting therapy.

CIPN can develop in a number of ways, but the most common sensations reported with this side effect include:

  • numbness or tingling in the hands or feet
  • loss of fine motor skills
  • loss of sensation
  • chronic pain
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Studies have looked at different methods of cryotherapy for the prevention of CIPN. Some methods tested to lower temperatures in the hands and feet during chemotherapy include:

Continuous flow and cryocompression devices may be difficult to find. You can ask your chemotherapy infusion center if they have these devices available and if you can use them during your infusion.

Frozen gloves and socks, on the other hand, may be easier for you to find if your infusion center doesn’t offer other forms of cryotherapy.

If you’re supplying your own frozen gloves, the goal is to make sure the gloves cover both hands to the wrist, with your thumb separated from the rest of the hand.

In general, the studies that investigated cryotherapy for the prevention of CIPN applied these treatments for the duration of each chemotherapy infusion.

In one study that examined the use of frozen gloves, the gloves were placed in a freezer for 3 hours before therapy, then applied to both hands 15 minutes before the start of the chemotherapy infusion.

The gloves were left on for the duration of a 1- to 2-hour chemotherapy infusion, and remained on for 15 minutes after the infusion was complete. Gloves were changed every 45 minutes with a new pair to maintain a low temperature.

Research into how well frozen gloves and socks work in reducing CIPN is inconclusive so far. There’s no current standard when it comes to preventing CIPN, but there have also been no serious side effects observed from using cold therapy, either.

While some study subjects dropped out of testing due to discomfort, there were no notable cases of frostbite or injury. After cold therapy, some patients reported a decrease in neuropathy symptoms and an overall improved quality of life.

Results of cryotherapy varied widely across the published studies. The overall consensus is that more research is needed to determine how well cryotherapy works in preventing CIPN, and what are the most effective methods and therapy times.

The effectiveness of cryotherapy varies by technique

In the current literature, response to cold therapy varied by the method used, with continuous cold devices and cryocompression therapy being the most effective, and frozen gloves or socks being the least effective.

  • A 2020 study that compared several methods of cryotherapy found little to no improvement or prevention among people who used frozen gloves, frozen socks, or bags of ice during their infusion. Devices that offer a continuous flow of coolant with or without compression did show significant improvement, though.
  • According to the same 2020 study, continuous cooling that was used for 60 minutes before the start of a chemotherapy infusion, through a 60-minute paclitaxel infusion, and for an average of 30 minutes after the infusion was done had some improvement in how many people developed more severe forms of nerve damage in the months after therapy. The cooling device in that study was set to 71°F (about 22°C).
  • More improvement was noted when cooling therapy was combined with compression, the study noted. When cooling and compression were combined — using a device set to 60°F (15.5°C) and with a range of 5 mmHg to 15 mmHg of pressure — participants reported better results, or at least delayed symptoms of CIPN.
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Does icing hands and feet during chemo work better than wearing gloves?

Icing or wearing frozen gloves and socks has been shown to have some potential to relieve chemotherapy-related neuropathy. However, there’s no real evidence that the use of either of these can prevent CIPN from developing.

Medical devices that offer continuous cooling had the best results in several studies on cryotherapy for CIPN.

What other things can I do to relieve neuropathy during chemotherapy sessions?

There isn’t much you can do to completely prevent CIPN. However, some practices, such as relaxation, massage, acupuncture, and biofeedback exercises might help you find some relief.

A small 2019 study also found that a topical capsaicin patch produced effective pain relief from CIPN for up to 12 weeks. In addition, researchers found that a capsaicin patch may also lead to nerve regeneration and restoration of sensory nerve fibers. More research is needed to confirm the benefits of capsaicin for CIPN.

Do certain types of chemotherapy medications cause neuropathy?

There are several types of chemotherapy in particular that have been linked to the development of neuropathy.

Taxanes like paclitaxel, docetaxel, and cabazitaxel seem to carry the highest risk of CIPN. But you can also develop this side effect with platinum agents, proteasome inhibitors, and vinca alkaloids.

Cold therapy is one area that’s being investigated as a way to prevent or treat the nerve pain and damage that can develop after chemotherapy.

There are no proven treatments or preventive measures for chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy at this time, but using cooling devices during infusions may help improve symptoms with little to no additional side effects outside of some discomfort.

Talk with your doctor or ask the clinician at your infusion center about cryotherapy options during chemotherapy. Frozen gloves and socks are an option, but current research shows that medical-grade cooling devices may have the most impact.