Our nerves play a key role in our body, sending sensory and motor information between the brain and other regions. Without nerves we would be unable to move at all or feel anything, whether it felt soothing or painful. Although pain is an unpleasant sensation, it is an important signal to our brain that something is wrong and should be taken care of.
Neuropathic pain is a particularly difficult problem because it affects the nerves themselves, causing pain when there is no direct external cause. In many situations, people develop neuropathic symptoms, including shooting pains, tingling, and numbness, without knowing the source.
This helpful guide will cover some of the most common causes of neuropathic pain and help you learn how to receive an accurate diagnosis and treatment for nerve pain. Although neuropathic pain can be debilitating and take you away from the people and activities you love, it is possible to find relief.
What Is Neuropathic Pain?
Neuropathic pain, also called neuropathy or neuralgia, is basically any pain, discomfort, or dysfunction caused by damaged or disrupted nerve tissue. This can include both the central nervous system, consisting of the brain and spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system. The peripheral nervous system consists of all the other nerves throughout the body, including those in the arms, legs, hips, abdomen, chest, and face.
Disrupted and damaged nerves can cause pain signals to be sent to the brain when there is not a direct stimulus such as an injury. Common neuropathic pain symptoms include:
- Shooting pain that is often described as an electric or burning sensation
- Tingling, or a pins-and-needles sensation
- Muscle weakness
- Sensitivity to heat or cold
Neuropathic pain can vary in severity, type, and location depending on the underlying cause.
The Most Common Causes of Neuropathic Pain
Neuropathic pain can often be difficult for doctors and patients to find the cause of. There are hundreds of different injuries, diseases, and conditions that can damage both the central and peripheral nervous systems, resulting in neuropathic pain. Here are some of the most common:
Serious brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, traumatic injuries, burns, fractures, and many other types of injuries can cause nerve damage that results in neuropathic pain. People with limb loss or amputations experience a particular form of neuropathy known as phantom limb pain.
Even less severe injuries such as muscle strains and ligament sprains can potentially cause neuropathic pain, particularly if they are not allowed to heal properly or there are repeated reinjuries.
It is estimated that as many as 30% of people with diabetes suffer from some form of neuropathic pain. This form of nerve pain, known as Diabetic neuropathy, can develop anywhere but often occurs in the hands and feet. The cause of diabetic neuropathy is not fully understood, but it is believed to be related to high levels of sugar in the blood damaging nerves throughout the body.
3. Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s Disease, and other nervous system disorders
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a condition where the body’s immune system attacks the protective layers of nerves. As a result, the nerves can become exposed, scarred, and damaged resulting in neuropathic pain. Parkinson’s disease is another nervous system disorder that often causes neuropathic pain, although researchers do not fully understand the relationship. Because of the effect they can have on nerves throughout the body, there is a risk of neuropathic pain for nearly any disorder affecting the central or peripheral nervous system.
4. Trapped and compressed nerves
Nerves that become trapped or compressed by injury, repetitive motions, or even poor posture can eventually become damaged, resulting in chronic neuropathic pain. A prominent example is carpal tunnel syndrome, where the median nerve becomes trapped by an inflamed carpal tunnel in the wrist.
Another frequent cause is sciatic nerve compression due to a bulging or herniated disc in the lower spine. If this nerve is compressed for too long without improving or being treated, it can cause neuropathic pain and dysfunction in the lower body. This can include limping, numbness, and shooting pains as well as pins and needles sensations in the toes.
5. Viral infections
Along with the primary symptoms and health problems they cause, some viruses can attack the nervous system and cause neuropathic pain. People recovering from shingles often encounter a specific form of neuropathy called postherpetic neuralgia. Additionally, people diagnosed with HIV and AIDs can also encounter nerve damage and resulting neuropathic pain.
6. Alcohol and substance abuse
Long-term excessive alcohol consumption can cause a wide range of health problems, including organ function, cardiovascular issues, and nerve damage. Neuropathic pain can also affect people misusing medications that are designed to treat pain, including opioid pain relievers. Receiving counseling for excessive alcohol and substance abuse as early as possible after it is recognized can be key to preventing or limiting serious issues like nerve damage and organ failure.
7. Cancer and cancer treatment
Many people living with cancer also deal with related neuropathic pain, particularly peripheral neuropathy. Although it is possible for the cancer itself to cause nerve damage, such as a tumor that compresses or traps a nerve, it is more common for cancer medications to cause neuropathic pain. Neuropathic symptoms related to chemotherapy drugs specifically are known as chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN) and require special care to ensure it does not cause further complications.
Diagnosing and Treating Neuropathic Pain
People diagnosed with a serious condition or injury that has a risk of neuropathic pain are generally warned early and given education and guidance to prevent and manage symptoms. For other people, neuropathic pain can seemingly develop spontaneously without a clear cause. In these cases, a diagnosis means seeing a doctor for an examination and testing to identify the underlying source. Steps for diagnosing neuropathic pain include:
- Reviewing medical history
- Discussing symptoms and how they are affecting mobility and quality of life
- A physical examination with movement tests and hands-on examinations of painful areas
- Undergoing testing, including nerve conductivity and blood tests
- Receiving diagnostic imagery, such as an X-ray or MRI to identify a compressed or entrapped nerve
Treatment for neuropathic pain is often closely related to the cause. For example, successfully managing diabetes can improve circulation and reduce blood sugar levels that contribute to nerve damage and nerve pain. Effective sciatica treatment, especially early in the process can relieve nerve compression and prevent ongoing nerve damage.
In other situations, permanent nerve damage may mean that the best course of action for treating neuropathic pain is by managing symptoms. Pain management options for neuropathic pain can include physical therapy, prescription and over-the-counter medication, acupuncture, and injections.
Contact Physician Partners of America Today
No matter what the cause of neuropathic pain, it is possible to find long-term relief and return to an active lifestyle if these symptoms are impacting your life. The caring and dedicated team at Physician Partners of America can help you understand the causes of your neuropathic pain and create a personalized treatment plan that is right for your specific needs and wellness goals.
Contact us today to learn more and schedule an appointment with one of our specialists.