Pain that runs along the course of a damaged nerve is known as neuralgia. This type of nerve pain is usually sharp and intense. Although it generally lasts only a few seconds at a time, it tends to recur, often with increasing frequency and intensity In many cases, the nerve pain accompanies other disorders, especially muscle problems.
Treatment varies depending upon the underlying cause. In a few cases, a neurologist — a medical specialist who deals with nerve pain as well as other nerve problems — may recommend surgically severing a damaged nerve to eliminate the pain.
Causes of nerve pain
Surgical removal of a limb often results in phantom limb pain. In this condition, the patient experiences pain, tingling, and other sensations that seem to originate in the missing limb. The pain usually subsides with time.
This is a temporary paralysis on one side of the face that is believed to result from swelling of the facial nerve. The swelling may be due to a virus, an autoimmune disease, or a decrease in blood flow and resulting pressure on the facial nerve as it passes through the temporal bone of the skull. Pain is felt behind the ear on the affected side of the face.
Causalgia is a nerve disorder that produces severe, persistent, burning pain, almost always in the extremities. The pain may be brought on by trivial events such as exposure to the air or drying of the skin in the affected area.
An injection of a local anesthetic provides temporary relief for nerve pain.
Carpal tunnel syndrome
This disorder, which is also called repetitive stress syndrome, is caused by compression of the median nerve as it passes through the narrow carpal tunnel of the wrist joint. It occurs most often among computer workers, typists, meat packers, and others whose jobs demand repeated hand or finger movements. The disorder is characterized by shooting pains that radiate from the wrist up the arm and down the fingers. The pain is most likely to occur at night. There may also be tingling and numbness in part of the hand, a burning sensation in the fingers, morning stiffness in the hands, weakness of the thumb, and shiny, dry skin on the affected hand.
Nerve pain is a common complication of diabetes. The cause is unclear, but it is believed to be due to peripheral vascular disease, which reduces blood flow to certain nerves, especially in the extremities. The first symptom is a tingling sensation in the hands and feet that slowly spreads up the arms and legs to the rest of the body. Numbness follows in the same pattern, and eventually nerve pain develops.
Facial nerve pain
This disorder, known as trigeminal neuralgia or tic douleureux, is characterized by severe jabbing or searing facial pain. The pain may be triggered by touching or stroking the face, brushing the teeth, chewing, shaving, or other common activities. The painful episodes are usually brief, lasting less than 15 minutes, but these attacks may occur several times a day. They may also disappear for weeks or months, with little or no discomfort between attacks.
This condition is actually a group of symptoms caused by abnormalities in sensory or motor nerves. The symptoms usually appear gradually over a period of months and include tingling and numbness that begin in the hands and feet and spread upward, muscle weakness that gradually spreads throughout the body; and shooting pains that are often worse at night. Changes in temperature often aggravate the pain.
The most common symptom of sciatica is pain along the entire length of the sciatic nerve, which runs down the lower back and the outer side of the thigh, leg, and foot. This pain may radiate across the back of the pelvis, through the buttocks, and into the leg. Sciatica is frequently the result of injury or rupture of a spinal disk (the spongy tissue that acts as a cushion between the vertebrae) in the lower back.
This disorder is caused by a reactivation of herpes zoster, the virus that causes chickenpox. After a bout of chickenpox, the virus remains dormant in the body. Years later, it may reemerge and infect one or more nerves, producing a rash similar to chickenpox. The rash is accompanied by burning or shooting pain that may last for weeks after the rash disappears.
Spinal cord problems
Injury to or pressure on the spinal cord usually gives rise to back pain and may cause more serious symptoms such as numbness or paralysis. Pain may also radiate to the arms or legs.
Advice about nerve pain
- Seek prompt treatment for back injuries that are likely to affect the nerves.
- Alternative therapies such as biofeedback training are sometimes helpful in controlling nerve pain.