By Dr. Peter Klapper Ph.D.
Have you experienced shooting or burning pain that can come and go but at times be unbearable? If so, you may have nerve damage or a malfunctioning nervous system, also known as neuropathic pain. According to The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) more than 20 million Americans have some type of peripheral neuropathy. With an ailment so prevalent, who is at risk
What is Neuropathic Pain?
First, we must understand what causes neuropathic pain. When your nervous system becomes damaged or isn’t working correctly, a person may feel pain from any of the various levels of the nervous system – the peripheral nerves, spinal cord and the brain.
Unlike pain experienced from physically damaged tissue, neuropathic pain occurs when the nerves begin to transmit their own incorrect pain signals to pain centers.
Symptoms of Neuropathic Pain
Neuropathic pain can be a different experience for everyone. For some, it may be fleeting and for others it can be chronic. Depending on the cause, will result in various symptoms, but common symptoms include a burning sensation, tingling or the feeling of “pins and needles” in the affected areas, and electric shock like pain that comes on very sudden.
Other symptoms such as allodynia may be brought on by something that would normally not cause any reaction such as a gentle brush to the skin. On the flip side, hyperalgesia is a hypersensitive reaction to something normally painful such as heat or a slight prick.
Neuropathic Pain Causes
Neuropathic pain may derive from preexisting conditions or a nerve trauma or injury. Those may include:
Diabetic Neuropathy: Diabetes is one of the most common conditions that can lead to neuropathic pain. Overtime, diabetes can cause nerve damage and lead to pain in the feet and hands.
Shingles: The virus that causes chicken pox, varicella-zoster virus, can lead to shingles later in life and lead to nerve inflammation and pain.
Neurological Diseases: Various conditions such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease can damage nerves and cause chronic pain.
Chemotherapy-Induced Neuropathy: When undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatment, up to 50 percent of individuals may experience neuropathic pain as a result of the treatment itself. Pain may be experience in the fingers, hands, arms, feet and legs.
Alcoholism: Neuropathic pain is very common in alcohol abuse. Chronic alcohol consumption can damage nerves due to the toxic effect of alcohol.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Pinpointing neuropathic pain can be a frustrating task for both the patient and physician due to the challenging nature of this condition. However, it’s important to keep advocating for yourself to find the cause in order to get proper treatment.
Diagnostic testing can include Nerve Conduction Studies (NCS) that measure the speed and strength of the electrical signals in the nerves, imaging such as MRI and CT scans, and blood tests to check for deficiencies that can contribute to neuropathy.
Once diagnosed, treatment option may vary, but the first line of defense tends to be anticonvulsant and antidepressant drugs.
Other treatment may include:
- Over the counter pain medications: such as Advil or Aleve.
- Physical therapy
- Nerve Blocks: injections of local anesthetics to provide temporary relief.
- Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS): A type of therapy that applies low-voltage electrical currents to the skin to block pain signals.
- Lifestyle changes: managing current ailments that may contribute to neuropathic pain.
- Self-Care: Whether that is acupuncture, massage therapy, yoga, or any other mindfulness practice to combat the stress promoted by neuropathy.