Neuropathic pain, also called nerve pain or neuropathy, is one of the most common causes of chronic pain and typically affects the lower back, legs, neck, and arms.1
Neuropathic pain differs from the more commonly understood nociceptive pain. Nociceptive pain is the body’s response to harmful stimuli, such as a pulled back muscle or broken bone, while neuropathic pain is related to problems in the neurological system.
Below you’ll find the basics to understanding and managing chronic neuropathic pain.
Neuropathic pain comes from the nerves
Neuropathic pain is caused by malfunction, disease, or injury to the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) or peripheral nervous system (all other nerve tissue in the body).
Symptoms of neuropathic pain
Neuropathic pain may be described as:
- Pricking (pins and needles)
- Radiating pain, down the leg and/or arm
- Sharp, stabbing, shooting, shock-like pain
- A burning sensation without a source of heat
- Tingling, weakness, and/or numbing
These symptoms can occur in the back, neck, or limbs, and the location of pain may not actually be where the nerve is injured or diseased.
Neuropathic pain symptoms are often unpredictable and vary significantly from person to person. The pain may be constant or occur on and off.
Neuropathic pain can become chronic
While neuropathic pain can go away on its own, it is often chronic (lasting longer than 3 months). It is frequently the result of an injury or trauma that compresses or impinges on a nerve and never healed.
For example, a person’s herniated disc might push against the nerve roots, which can send pain signals to the brain. Over time the herniated disc may stop compressing the nerve, but the nerve tissue can become damaged and continue to send faulty pain signals to the brain. The pain itself becomes the condition, rather than a symptom of a condition, and becomes more difficult to treat.
Neuropathic pain can be managed
Neuropathic pain treatments may include certain medications, alternative treatments, nerve block injections, and other interventions generally used for chronic pain.
Oral medications for neuropathic pain
Medications designed for epilepsy or depression are sometimes prescribed for neuropathic pain. (Typically, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs [NSAIDs] and prescription pain medications, such as opioids, are ineffective for alleviating neuropathic pain.)
Other treatments for neuropathic pain
In addition to oral medication, you may wish to try alternative treatments like biofeedback or acupuncture, which are low-risk therapies to help manage pain.
Doctors may also consider nerve block injections, spinal cord stimulation, and pain pumps if medications fail to provide relief. He or she can also help diagnose or rule out neuropathic pain and determine the treatments best suited for your unique situation.
- Colloca L, Ludman T, Bouhassira D, et al. Neuropathic pain. Nat Rev Dis Primers. 2017;3:17002. Published 2017 Feb 16. doi:10.1038/nrdp.2017.2