Damage or injury to the nerves in the central or peripheral nervous system can cause neuropathic pain.
Some people may experience chronic pain in the body as a sharp, burning sensation, while others experience numbness and tingling.
Injury or disease can damage the nerve fibers, disrupting the pain signals the nerves send to and receive from other parts of the body.
Nerve damage can distort existing signals, create new signals, or prevent the usual signals from transferring. Also, it can sometimes make non-pain signals feel painful. These problems can cause painful symptoms, which can range from mild to severe.
Damage to the nervous system affects the senses, so people may have changes in the way they experience touch, temperature, movement, and pressure.
This article looks at the causes, types, and symptoms of neuropathic pain, as well as some treatment options.
Various health conditions can cause damage to the nerves, leading to neuropathic pain. These include:
- cancer and cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy
- neurological conditions, such as multiple sclerosis (MS)
- neurodegenerative conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease
- Guillain-Barre syndrome
- blood vessel disease
- vascular malformations
- autoimmune conditions
Injury can cause tissue and nerve damage or put excess pressure on the nerves. This may occur during surgery or as a result of a serious accident, such as one that leads to a spinal cord injury.
Certain infections, such as shingles, can sometimes damage the nerves and cause neuropathic pain.
Sometimes, certain medications can also cause neuropathic pain.
In some cases, however, there may be no clear cause of neuropathic pain.
There are many different types of neuropathy that affect different nerves and parts of the body.
Damage to one nerve is called mononeuropathy, while damage to two or more nerves in different areas is called multiple mononeuropathy.
In most cases, there is damage to many nerves, which is called polyneuropathy.
The sections below will look at some different types of neuropathy and explain which body parts they tend to affect.
Peripheral neuropathy is a type of nerve damage that affects the peripheral nervous system. The peripheral nervous system sends signals between the central nervous system and the rest of the body.
Peripheral neuropathy can affect the extremities of the body, including the:
Autonomic neuropathy affects the nerves that control the internal organs and regulate essential functions such as breathing and digestion.
Autonomic neuropathy can cause a range of problems that can affect the heart, blood pressure, and digestive system.
Focal neuropathy is usually damage to a single nerve within one of the following bodily locations:
Bell’s palsy is a type of focal neuropathy. This condition causes a sudden weakness or paralysis on one side of the face.
Focal neuropathy can also cause double vision and sudden weakness or pain in the front of the thigh and other areas of the body.
A rare type of nerve damage is proximal neuropathy. This type of nerve damage is usually only on one side of the body and can affect the hip, buttock, or thigh.
Proximal neuropathy can cause severe pain and difficulty with movement, as well as weight and muscle loss.
Diabetes causes high blood sugar in the body. Over time, this can damage the blood vessels that supply vital oxygen and nutrients to the nerves.
The decrease in oxygen and nutrients makes it difficult for the nerves to function as usual.
Diabetic neuropathy can include any of the above types of neuropathy, but up to 50% of people with diabetes will have peripheral neuropathy.
Compression mononeuropathy refers to damage to a single nerve from a compression injury or blood vessel disease. Narrowing of the blood vessels can restrict blood flow to the nerves, affecting how they function.
Injury or repetitive strain can cause compression in nerves as they pass over a joint or through a tight passage in the body.
Carpal tunnel syndrome, which refers to compression of the median nerve at the wrist, is the most common example.
People may experience tingling, numbness, or swelling in the fingers, particularly when using the hands or sleeping at night.
Phantom limb syndrome
Phantom limb syndrome is a type of neuropathic pain. People may experience sensations or pain in a missing limb. The pain may be burning, prickling, or shooting.
Almost 80% of people who have undergone amputation will experience phantom limb syndrome. Mixed signals from the brain and spinal cord may be the cause of phantom limb syndrome.
Symptoms will often decrease in the 6 months following surgery, but they can continue for years.
Compression or damage to the trigeminal nerve in the head can cause trigeminal neuralgia. Stroke, MS, and facial surgery can all cause damage to the trigeminal nerve.
This type of neuropathy can cause intense pain in the face. Everyday activities such as brushing the teeth and washing the face may trigger pain.
Postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) is a complication of shingles. PHN can affect areas of the body where a shingles rash was present.
Around 10–18% of people with shingles will develop PHN, and older adults with shingles are more likely to experience it.
Thoracic or lumbar radiculopathy
Thoracic or lumbar radiculopathy is a type of mononeuropathy that affects one or both sides of the chest or abdominal wall.
Some symptoms of neuropathic pain can include:
- severe pain, which may feel like shooting, throbbing, or burning
- electrical-like sensations
- a tingling sensation, or “pins and needles”
- reduced use of the senses, such as difficulty sensing temperatures
- skin that appears mottled or red
- changes in pain associated with the weather
Neuropathic pain can also cause people to be overly sensitive to touch. For example, people may find that the slightest pressure or friction from clothing or a gentle touch can aggravate the nerves and cause pain.
Chronic pain can affect day-to-day life and affect a person’s quality of life. Some side effects of neuropathic pain may include:
Some symptoms of neuropathy will ease over time. Treating or managing the underlying cause may help relieve symptoms of neuropathic pain.
People with chronic neuropathic pain may need treatment to relieve painful or debilitating symptoms.
Taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs is not usually effective for neuropathic pain.
Other medications that may help relieve nerve pain include:
- antiepileptic drugs
- capsaicin cream
- lidocaine patch
- injections or nerve blocks, which may be a combination of steroids, opioids, and anesthetics
A doctor may also suggest treatment with a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) machine. A TENS machine delivers a small electrical impulse to the area of pain through an electrode attached to the skin.
The impulse may stimulate specific nerves and block pain signals. This can help the muscles relax and ease painful symptoms.
If a TENS machine is not effective, a person may want to try percutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (PENS). PENS works in a similar way to TENS, but a health professional will instead use a needle to place the electrode under the skin rather than on top of it.
Surgery can also provide relief from severe cases of some types of nerve damage, such as compression mononeuropathy.
Damage or injury to the nerves can cause neuropathic pain. Symptoms can range from mild to severe.
People may experience burning or shooting pain, tingling, numbness, or a loss of some sensation.
Treatment options include medication for pain relief, electric stimulation, or, in some cases, surgery.
Some types of neuropathic pain may ease or resolve over time, while other types will require long-term pain management.