The perception of pain varies with everyone; terms such as stabbing, prickling, burning, tingling, and other descriptions have been used. Nerve pain, also called "neuropathic pain," is difficult to live with. But for most people, nerve pain can be reduced.
Nerve pain is usually due to damaged nerves that send false signals that result in chronic pain. Also, the signals may not function to register the pain associated with an injury normally. In a case like this, the person may lack a pain response indicating injury (for example, someone who has diabetes with neuropathy in the feet may not register a foot injury when it occurs).
Some develop unusual triggers that make them overly sensitive to certain conditions. This may be caused by heightened sensitivity (hypersensitivity) of the nerves to stimulation. For example, nerve sensitivity to touch can cause pain in some people with herpes zoster; they can't tolerate clothing or sheets touching the infected area. Other nerve damage can result in painful body positions during standing or sitting.
Not all nerve damage results in pain. Loss of feeling or numbness may occur. Although it may not be painful, the numbness usually results in decreased sensitivity of the sense of touch that can interfere with dexterity in the hands. This can make activities like typing, shoe-tying, or playing a musical instrument difficult.
Some nerve pain is worse at night, causing difficulty sleeping. This loss of sleep can cause additional health problems so people with this type of nerve pain need to discuss the problem with their doctor to receive early treatment.
Numbness or reduction/loss of the sense of touch can be dangerous because it affects balance and muscle strength. This may require braces, canes, or walkers to prevent falls.
Although some nerve damage may cause numbness instead of pain, this can still be harmful. Numbness may mask damage to traumatized extremities like the feet. People with this type of nerve damage can benefit from regularly examining their extremities for possible overlooked injuries.
Nerve pain is often progressive, especially if the root cause (for example, diabetes) is not treated. The usual progression of nerve pain is that it begins far away from the brain and spinal cord (hands and feet) and spreads backwards (retrograde) towards the arms and legs. With appropriate treatment, the progression may be halted and, in some cases, reversed.
Your doctor is your partner in controlling nerve pain. By answering all questions asked (pain type, duration, and how it has changed your lifestyle), you help your doctor to determine the cause of the pain and how to treat it.
Although some people develop nerve pain for no known reason, many others develop it because of a certain health problem such as diabetes, shingles, or cancer. Treating such conditions can indirectly reduce or stop the pain. However, it's also possible to treat the pain accompanying these conditions while undergoing treatment for the causative conditions themselves.
Over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers drugs are often the first medicines used to reduce or stop nerve pain. The components may include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or acetaminophen. Some OTCs may be incorporated into creams, gels, ointments, oils, or sprays that are applied to the skin overlying the painful area.
There are many different prescription drugs that may help to reduce nerve pain. They range from powerful painkillers to drugs that were originally used for depression or seizures but can also reduce nerve pain. However, some of these prescription drugs may be addictive, so you and your doctor need to find a treatment plan that works for you without causing you additional problems.
Some people with nerve pain respond to other treatments known as complementary, natural, or alternative treatments. For example, acupuncture may help some, while dietary supplements (such as vitamin B-12) may help others. However, you and your doctor should discuss the use of these treatments and supplements to be sure they don't interfere with other medical therapies.
Although doctor-directed treatments for nerve pain may be effective, most doctors agree that when their patients commit to creating a better lifestyle (exercise, good diet, and weight loss, if necessary) it will likely improve the chances for further pain control.
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- Laurence Dutton / Photographers Choice
- Jonathan Storey / Riser
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- Image Source
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- American Chronic Pain Association: "Neuropathic Pain"
- Journal of the American Medical Association: "JAMA Patient Page - Peripheral Neuropathy"